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Commentary: The new Thai PM has his work cut out on Myanmar

BANGKOK: A month after Srettha Thavisin was sworn in as Thailand’s prime minister from a coalition made up of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party and pro-military factions, the real estate tycoon debuted on the world stage at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

He was chasing high-stakes deals with Tesla, Google and Microsoft, and meeting with other US business leaders in the hopes of turning Thailand into a Southeast Asian economic powerhouse following a decade of military rule.

In New York, Thavisin put on a show of confidence. He is a political leader transitioning from the glamorous high-end property sector to the face of a country moving away from (though not entirely) semi-autocracy under previous prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was Thailand’s army chief when he took power in the 2014 coup.

Even though the new Thai government’s priority is the economy, taking a stand on a range of foreign policy issues, including Myanmar, will be inevitable. On this, Thavisin has his work cut out and will have a difficult time reversing the Prayut government’s legacy on Myanmar, which has damaged Thailand’s image within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and beyond.

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COMPLEX TIES WITH MYANMAR

In July 2022, Thavisin lambasted Prayut for allowing Myanmar to “breach Thailand’s sovereignty” after a jet flew into Thailand’s airspace while attacking ethnic minority rebels. Thailand did not officially condemn Myanmar for the act and Prayut as prime minister simply brushed it aside.

It is no secret that Prayut and Myanmar’s junta leader and head of the State Administration Council Min Aung Hlaing share a close relationship. Min Aung Hlaing has pursued ties with Thai elites for years, asking the late privy council chairman Prem Tinsulanonda to adopt him as a son. After the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, Min Aung Hlaing wrote a letter to Prayut detailing the reasons behind his actions.

There are other connections, too. Investigations by Thai opposition party Move Forward revealed business ties between Thai Senator Upakit Pachariyangkun and Tun Min Latt, a Myanmar businessman sanctioned by the US government and whose business empire spans arms deals, mining, casinos and energy. He was arrested in Bangkok in September 2022.

In the wider region, the actions of Prayut’s top diplomat Don Pramudwinai have divided ASEAN. In June, Thailand hosted informal talks among ASEAN’s foreign ministers, including Than Swe from Myanmar.

The meeting was boycotted by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, who all insisted Myanmar had to follow through with ASEAN’s five-point consensus, which includes an immediate end to violence and allowing humanitarian aid to reach its citizens. The consensus has so far been a failure.

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