The 88 Generation student leaders' visit to Thailand has been a big eye-opener. No doubt they are in awe of the progress that Thailand has achieved and jump to the conclusion that Burma should copy its neighbor’s policies.
It would, however, be disastrous for Burma to mimic Thailand wholesale without looking at the entire labyrinth of political, social, economic, cultural and globalization issues that Thailand has had to negotiate, as well as looking at successive Thai governments’ history of struggles, mistakes, wins and losses.
Mya Aye and his group appear to see the positive side of Thailand, which is commendable, but they also need to study how Thai democratization took place and what form of democracy has developed up to this present day.
Then they should study the speeded-up process of industrialization that has occured in urban Thailand, leaving the rural population lagging behind. What were the consequences and complications of that policy?
In 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minster and quickly initiated a very effective poverty eradication program which successfully cut the national poverty level by 50 percent in four years. He was—and still is—immensely popular among upcountry Thais.
When Thaksin was ousted in a military coup, the rural folks rose up in droves to support the “Redshirt” cause which ultimately led to a national crisis and a state of near anarchy in the middle of Bangkok.
There are serious lessons to be learned from Burma's eastern neighbor. It is commendable that President Thein Sein has asked ex-premier Thaksin to lecture on poverty eradication. It's a noble gesture—however, the current situation in Burma differs greatly from that of Thaksin's era.
Thailand had a surplus during those years and the Thaksin government used part of it to help alleviate rural poverty. Whether Burma has that kind of resource is another matter.
If Thein Sein can pull it off by some means, such as through World Bank loans and the ADB, it may be able to prevent the kind of income disparity that has evolved in Thailand.
At this juncture, it is crucial that the national plan to industrialize be balanced with sustainable rural economy development. Learning from Thailand’s mistakes of the mid-2000s can ensure that Burma avoids a similar disaster.
Another caveat of Thai politics is that the military is very dominant despite the fact the constitution is supposedly democratic. Civilian governments in recent decades do not seem to be able to hold onto power in the political sphere.
The military is ubiquitous, in politics and in business, and during a crisis a military coup always appears to be the rule as opposed to the exception; so much so that nobody in Bangkok bats an eyelid during successive coups as most of them are bloodless.
It was also due to the dominance of the military that a very effective prime minister was ousted.
So it is very important for Burma to adopt some of Thailand's examples, both political and economic, but judiciously adapted to the unfolding situation in the country.
Burma may be several years behind—but it can use the benefit of hindsight to ensure that it avoids the mistakes of its neighbor.