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Thai PM and Myanmar junta chief stay engaged via back channels

Talks Between Prayuth And Min Aung Hlaing Illustrate Bonds Between Militaries

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Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, left, and Myanmar Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing: Min Aung Hlaing was the first Southeast Asian military leader who reached out to Prayuth after he overthrew an elected Thai government in 2014 as army chief. (Source photos by Reuters)

Thailand's pro-military government has tapped its back-channel contacts with Myanmar's armed forces to shape Bangkok's diplomatic options following the turmoil and bloodshed in its neighbor since the February coup in Naypyitaw.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha tipped this element of Bangkok's approach by skipping the recent summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders in Jakarta. He sent Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai instead for the ASEAN gathering convened to chart a regional response to Myanmar.

Prayuth seemingly missed his chance to engage with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's military chief and junta leader, who flew to the Indonesian capital for the April 24 summit -- his first overseas trip since the power grab.

But criticism of Prayuth prompted this retort from a confidant: "The P.M. does not have to attend the ASEAN summit to engage with [Min Aung Hlaing]."

Pressed to elaborate, the source in the prime minister's inner circle told Nikkei Asia that Prayuth benefits from direct links cultivated by members of Thailand's army over the past decade with counterparts in the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is called.

"We have maintained back channels, and [Prayuth and Min Aung Hlaing] can communicate without having to meet," he said. "They have talked since the coup."

"They know how to engage," he added, but the source declined to reveal the substance of their discussions.

Prayuth, now a retired general, overthrew an elected Thai government in 2014 when he was army chief. He led the Thai junta for five years until the 2019 general election, which paved the way for his 2-year-old pro-military governing alliance.

This chemistry between the two militaries has not been lost on veteran Thai diplomats who engaged with a broad range of Myanmar's political players prior to the putsch.

"The two militaries think alike as comrades-in-arms, and they can understand each other well," said Kobsak Chutikul, a former Thai ambassador. "The Thai and Myanmar militaries have a lot of contact at many levels -- local commanders, border commanders, regional commanders and even at the highest level, the central command."

The bonds stem from the 2,400-km border shared by the countries, a line longer than Myanmar's boundaries with China in the northeast and India in the west. Troops from Thailand's Third Army, which handles security in the country's northern sector, watch a line that stretches across mountainous terrain, remote and porous valleys as well as busy border towns where people and goods flow both ways.

Those troops now face refugees crossing from Myanmar as the Tatmadaw's campaign to repress anti-coup protesters has resulted in over 750 deaths. The border is also a route for the movement of illegal weapons and the multibillion-dollar narcotics trade from drug labs in northeastern Myanmar.

The Thai military traditionally calls the shots in shaping the Southeast Asian kingdom's foreign policy toward its immediate neighbors.

But Min Aung Hlaing also was the first Southeast Asian military leader to reach out to Prayuth after he staged the 2014 coup, praising him for the putsch. Two years earlier, Min Aung Hlaing had sought the blessing of Thai Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda -- a former army chief, former prime minister and president of the royal advisory Privy Council -- to become his "adopted son."

Thailand's personal ties with Min Aung Hlaing were elevated to new heights in 2018 when he was awarded the country's Knight Grand Cross of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, a royal decoration normally given to military officers and civilians who have been recognized for distinguished service. It was bestowed "in honor of the support he has shown for the Thai military," the Bangkok Post, an English-language daily, reported at the time.

Min Aung Hlaing's bonds with Thai military counterparts reflect the dramatic change in relations between the two neighbors, once marked by historical animosities, deep suspicion and border skirmishes.

Bangkok's security policy toward Myanmar over a decade ago was illustrated by its "buffer zone" strategy, which allowed armed ethnic rebels in Myanmar fighting separatist wars against the Tatmadaw to operate along the Thai border. Tension was rife along the border at the time, said a security analyst, with the ethnic fighters serving as useful proxies for the Thai military.

"There was a lack of trust between the two countries in those days because of the buffer zone policies," said Sihasak Phuangketkeow, former permanent secretary of Thailand's Foreign Ministry. "But not so now, and the Thai military's border policies changed for many reasons, including the realization about the scope of border trade."

Cross-border trade between the countries totaled $5.4 billion for the fiscal year 2018-2019, according to the Thai ministry of commerce. It was driven by Thailand pouring investment into infrastructure to bolster economic ties and the many new checkpoints opened for Thai businesses to tap. Prior to the coup, Kasikorn Research Center, a subsidiary of KBank, a Thai bank, forecast that in Mae Sot, the busiest border crossing, trade would reach 100 billion baht (about $3.3 billion) by 2021. The robust cross-border trade follows the nearly $11 billion in foreign direct investment Thailand has sent into Myanmar over the past three decades, coming third after China and Singapore.

"Thailand deals with Myanmar on a daily basis, at many levels, so the government's response to the coup will have to factor multiple challenges," Sihasak said, echoing sentiments from some in Thai military circles that the country is the "only frontline state" in relation to Myanmar, unlike other ASEAN members. "Our diplomatic language will naturally be more restrained, and we will not be able to talk like Indonesia or Singapore about Myanmar."

Prayuth's approach reflects this, influenced by what his military advisers say about the inner workings of post-coup Myanmar.

"Staying engaged is our priority," the source in the prime minister's office said. "We are closer than you think."