Political oppression in Burma has incredibly become the highlight of the 175th anniversary of Thai-US diplomatic relations. The 21-hour stopover of President George W Bush and First Lady Laura Bush in Thailand, which starts on Wednesday, is all about the plight of the Burmese people and their future prospects. It takes the longstanding friendship and alliance to accommodate the US request.
It is an open secret that Thailand and the US have different takes on the current situation in Burma. For the past seven years, Bangkok's unswerving backing of Burma has marred bilateral relations between the two countries and angered quite a few US congressmen who have criticised Bangkok severely. Since 2001 the Thai government has pursued a policy of appeasement towards Burma, providing strong support for commercial links with the military junta there.
Under his leadership, deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra turned the country's policy toward Burma upside-down ignoring internal security concerns and concerted international pressure. He initiated his own Burmese policy, which was rife with his own vested interests. The scandal over the Bt4 billion loan to Burma approved by his government is a good case in point.
The Thai government often argues that as Burma's neighbour, it does not have the luxury of distance enjoyed by the US or other Western countries, so it has to carry the burden of proximity. That explains why Thai policy on Burma is so soft and accommodating. For instance, Thailand often says it depends on the border trade with Burma and close cooperation to cope with transnational problems such as drug trafficking, displaced persons and illegal refugees. The Thai government has also rejected the US's sanctions on Burma thinking they only harm the common people.
In his policy speeches, former foreign minister Noppadon Pattama fervently argued that economic engagement would help improve the lives of the Burmese people and jobs, and then democracy would follow. Thailand often pointed out that it is in a better position to convince the junta leaders on the merits of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. The same argument has been used by Asean since 1991 when the Burmese issue became a contentious one between Asean and its Western dialogue partners. If that is the case, Burma should have since shown some political openness and improvements. After all, Burma joined Asean over a decade ago.
On the contrary, the US has done almost everything it can during the Bush administration to isolate Burma internationally and support Burmese democratic forces in and outside the country. The latest, the Jade (Junta's Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act, signed into law last week, also showed Washington's determination to hit the junta leaders and relatives where it hurts them the most: their wallets. The US hopes that stricter financial sanctions this time round could yield results, as was the case with North Korea.
It is interesting to note that Bush views his Asian policy as successful, even though he has had a narrow-focused policy approach towards the region in his early years.
In comparison with the Middle East and other parts of the world, Asia is less hostile to the US and has shown appreciation of the continued US presence in the region. The positive outcome of the six-party talk in North Korea's nuclear capability has already boosted Bush's international standing and helped usher Pyongyang's accession to the Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation last month.
By concentrating on Burma's democratic prospects on this short trip, Bush wants the international community to know that he is serious when he talks about freedom and liberty.
Indeed, when I had a chance to meet Bush on September 18 of last year at the Oval Office, he said proudly that after his presidency ends next year he would set up an institute to promote democracy and freedom around the world. With this visit, the president also wants to deliver a strong message on Asia's future dynamic and increased importance towards the US's global strategy. An Asia that is rich and democratic is good for global peace and stability.
Indeed, with better planning, Bush could have used his stopover in Thailand this week for a meeting of the minds with Asean leaders. When a scheduled meeting in Singapore early last September between him and Asean leaders was postponed, the latter were disappointed and were looking forward for a future meeting. They want to have an exclusive dialogue with the US president, the only dialogue partner that still does not have an annual summit. As the current Asean chair, Thailand could have arranged such a meeting without difficulty. Deep down, Bangkok wants to promote Thai-US cooperation as the main driving force for strengthening Asean-US relations.
Overall, Thai-US relations continue to be strong and business-like. Both countries have yet to maximise the dividends of their time-tested friendship and alliance. Now that Thailand's democracy is back on track, albeit with such a disappointing Cabinet, both countries must try to revitalise and refocus their cooperation.
Back in 2003, Thailand was among the first Asean countries to take part in the global terrorism campaign. Through joint-operations, Thai and US authorities nabbed Hambali, a leading figure of Jemaah Islamiyah, in August 2003. In March, the arrest of the Merchant of Death, Viktor Bout, was good news for the US. The planned extradition of Viktor Bout to the US also shows how close these relations have become, especially among the law-enforcement agencies of the two countries.
Back in July, 1833 when the US signed the Thai-US Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Thailand, there was a sentence in the document saying that the two countries are committed to a friendship "so long as heaven and earth shall endure". Indeed, that has been the case and it is not likely to change.