Webinar on “Thailand-Myanmar Relations in Regional Perspective: Issues and Challenges”

The webinar discussed the political dynamics of Thailand’s new government, which had assumed office in early September 2023, with a view to analyze Thailand’s future policy and approach to the ongoing Myanmar crisis. The Myanmar issue affects Thailand’s foreign policy including its role and position in ASEAN.


Monday, 18 September 2023 – The Myanmar Studies and Thai Studies Programmes at ISEAS invited Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak’s assessment on the political dynamics of Thailand’s new cabinet, the Srettha administration’s potential departure from its predecessor’s approach to the Myanmar crisis, and what strategies the new government might employ in addressing the crisis within the ASEAN framework. Ms Moe Thuzar, Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, moderated the webinar which attracted the interest of 92 attendees.

Moderator Ms Moe Thuzar and speaker Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The Prayut Government’s Position

  • Since the February 2021 coup, the Prayut government engaged mainly with the State Administration Council (SAC) regime in Myanmar. In the Prayut government’s outgoing months, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai pushed for re-inviting the SAC to the ASEAN table, despite the ASEAN leaders’ agreement to uphold the October 2021 decision on limiting Myanmar’s attendance at ASEAN Summits to a non-political representative. DPM Don also initiated a Track 1.5 discussion within ASEAN that favoured the SAC. Three key factors influenced the Prayut administration’s Myanmar policy:
  • An interest to align with China’s peace plan for Myannar;
  • Thai corporate interests in Myanmar; and
  • General Prayut’s direct personal intervention, based on his close connection with the SAC chief.

The Srettha Government’s Potential Shift in Approach

  • The new Thai government, led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and the Pheu Thai Party, took office on 5 September 2023. PM Srettha has appointed Dr Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara Phra, a seasoned technocrat in trade and economy, as foreign minister. Dr Parnpree has affirmed Thailand’s commitment to ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar and that Thailand would consult ASEAN partners on any informal diplomacy moves regarding Myanmar.
  • Dr. Parnpree was the Thai government’s energy advisor in 2013-14 and chairperson of Thailand’s state-owned energy company. His diplomatic family background gives him deep understanding of the foreign ministry’s workings. His experience in Thailand’s energy security and familiarity with foreign affairs are expected to have a positive impact on the Srettha government’s foreign policy.
  • Thailand’s Foreign Ministry enjoys relative independence compared to other ministries. Thai foreign ministry officials are well-trained/qualified technocrats who prioritize knowledge-based policy formulation over political or business interests.
  • Despite controversies around the coalition cabinet formation, the new Thai government is considered legitimate, and an improvement from its predecessor. Thailand’s foreign policy may now pursue a more independent and assertive course in line with national interests rather than follow an autocratic agenda.

Myanmar and the future of ASEAN Centrality

  • The Myanmar crisis continues to be a priority concern for both the Thai government and ASEAN. The spiral of violence sparked by the Myanmar military’s atrocities continues to claim lives daily. The SAC has not heeded ASEAN’s calls for cessation of violence, a priority in the Five-Point Consensus.
  • ASEAN member states are divided on approaches to ASEAN’s response to Myanmar’s crisis. This internal discord affects ASEAN’s unity and credibility.
  • ASEAN’s global role and relevance depend on its effectiveness as a regional organization. The emergence of minilateral security arrangements in the Asia-Pacific region, and recent developments such as US President Biden’s decision to visit Vietnam rather than attend the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN-US Summit in Indonesia, has raised questions on international perceptions of ASEAN’s internal cohesion. 

Assessing the Current State of Myanmar and Post-Conflict Scenarios

  • The 2021 coup abruptly extinguished hopes for peace and development in Myanmar. The brief period of transition to civilian rule that started in 2011 now seems a distant memory.
  • The coup and the military’s subsequent actions resulted in uniting people across Myanmar against military rule. However, the resistance coalition still faces the peril of internal differences. To instil confidence and cohesion among all stakeholders in the resistance coalition, the National Unity Government (NUG) needs to unequivocally uphold commitments for a federal system. The NUG also lacks a unifying figure or transformative leadership as a strong rallying point.
  • At this juncture in the ongoing conflict in Myanmar, the resistance may need to prepare for and put into place mechanisms and institutions for a measured transition, while also working to gradually gain ground in the conflict. This approach may prove more effective than seeking an abrupt replacement of the SAC, and potentially yield more stable (and sustainable) outcomes.

Questions from the audience touched on various aspects of the Myanmar crisis: the state of Thai-Myanmar border security, the new Thai government’s position on Myanmar refugees and transnational crime, Thailand’s role in the ASEAN Troika on Myanmar (involving past, present and incoming ASEAN Chairs) and the efficacy of this mechanism, Thailand’s strategic business interests in Myanmar, and the bilateral and regional aspects of the geopolitical and economic ramifications of the Myanmar crisis on Thailand.