Wed, 09 Jul 2003

Being the hand that feeds is not enough

Thepchai Yong, The Nation, Asia News Network, Bangkok

When Cambodians went on a rampage early this year, torching the compound of the Thai Embassy and a number of Thai businesses in Phnom Penh, some Thai political leaders were heard asking: "How could they do this to us after all we have done for them?"

A lot of other Thais were as baffled by the sudden violent outburst in the Cambodian capital. They watched in disbelief as angry Cambodians shouted anti-Thai slogans and cursed Thailand for exploiting their country. For years, Thai people somehow held the belief that as a beneficiary of Thai humanitarian generosity during its decades of wars and political turmoil, Cambodia would forever owe Thailand its gratitude.

The incident came as a rude awakening for Thailand as far as its treatment of its neighbors is concerned. And if the attitude of Thai political leaders and government officials does not change, we can be sure that the Cambodians will not be the last to "bite" the hand that fed them.

Burma (Myanmar) is a case in point. Thai authorities and politicians love to brag to the international community about how magnanimous Thailand is to the unfortunate Burmese students and displaced persons escaping from the terror of the regime in Rangoon (Yangon). We provide them with food and sanctuary just the way we did the Cambodians.

That's the humanitarian side that successive Thai governments have been projecting to the outside world, and which to a large degree has won the appreciation of foreign governments and international aid organizations. But the Thaksin governments sudden toughening of its stance toward the Burmese pro-democracy groups in Thailand is casting a dark cloud over that image.

The crackdown on the Burmese students came just as the world community was crying foul over the sudden political regression in Burma. Thaksin's threat to arrest Burmese dissidents who dared to rally in front of the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok to protest against Aung San Suu Kyi's arrest ended any notion that the Thai government might at least have sympathy for their democratic cause.

By railing against the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and demonising the Burmese dissidents here, Thaksin has unavoidably allowed himself to be seen as siding with the generals of the ruling junta in Burma. The regime has long made known its desire for Thai authorities to clamp down on Burmese dissidents using Thai soil to carry out their political activities.

If the agreement reached last week between UNHCR and the Thai government is implemented to the letter, the Rangoon regime can be assured that it has seen the last of the nuisance created by Burmese students in front of its embassy in Bangkok. All the dissidents will be rounded up and shipped to a camp on the Thai- Burmese border -- out of sight and out of mind of Thai authorities.

It should not be difficult to gauge the feelings of Aung San Su Kyi and her colleagues in the National League for Democracy about the harsh treatment their compatriots here are getting at a time when they need all the support they can get to weather their most difficult time. What happened has also put a big question mark over Thailand's reputation as democratic society with high tolerance for peaceful political expression.

The campaign by Burmese dissidents here for democracy in their homeland is no different from those of overseas Thais supporting the pro-democracy movement against the repressive Thanom government that led to the Oct. 14 uprising in 1973 and against the military-installed Thanin government that came to power in the aftermath of the 1976 Thammasat massacre. Thousands of Thais also took to the streets in many capitals in support of the pro- democracy movement at the height of the May uprising in 1992.

Of course, there are rogue elements among the Burmese students that should be dealt with legally. But it's the democratic spirit among the majority that deserves full support from the Thais, who themselves have had first-hand experience of what it's like to be under a dictatorship.

Sooner or later, the military dictatorship in Rangoon will be gone. Thai people would definitely prefer that Thailand is remembered in history as a neighbor that contributed to accelerating the pace of democratic change rather than as a country that helped prolong the life of the dictatorship in Rangoon.

At the height of the raging conflict in Cambodia in the early 1980s, Thailand provided refuge to hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. But unfortunately, it was the condescending attitude of Thai political leaders and authorities on the ground toward the poor Cambodians -- and not Thai generosity -- that had a stronger and more lasting impact on our neighbor. And this was exacerbated by what the Cambodians saw as the Thai exploitation of their economy afterwards.

So don't be surprised if the Burmese in a future democratic Burma remember that a Thai leader once described Burmese dissidents here as "disease-carriers", "criminals," "troublemakers" and "drug pushers" while the rest of the world community was condemning the regime in Rangoon.

And who knows, Thais may one day be asking themselves: "How could the Burmese do this to us after all we have done for them?"