Myanmar’s democratic struggle at stake in Thailand’s election

Thailand’s elections are important not only for the many Thais seeking the end of quasi-military rule in their country but also for the more than 1.5 million Myanmar refugees and migrants who live in the Southeast Asian nation and hope a new government can put an end to Bangkok’s support for the military regime in Naypyidaw.

Thailand itself was rocked by a military coup in 2014 when General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power from the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, solidifying his rule with closely-controlled elections five years later.

With the country heading to the polls within the next few weeks, support for Prayuth appears to be slipping, and with it the preferential position of staunch ally Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the man who seized power from Myanmar’s elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021.

For Ma Khine Thet, a young researcher from Myanmar, the election offers a glimmer of hope that with different people in charge in Bangkok, Thailand will throw its weight behind the anti-coup movement led by the National Unity Government (NUG) set up by Myanmar’s overthrown legislators.

“If the Thai opposition forms a government, they will likely support Myanmar’s democratic movement, probably in cooperation with the US. But I worry that China, who’s supporting Min Aung Hlaing, will pressure the new Thai administration,” said Ma Thet, who asked to use a pseudonym amid fears for her security.

Ma Thet fled to Bangkok after her former colleague was thrown in jail by the military last year. Like many other advocates, students, journalists and politicians from Myanmar, she is anxious about being deported back to the country, where she could face prison and even torture.

“The Thai military government and the Myanmar junta have a ‘big brother and younger brother’ relationship,” she said. “Thailand is among the very few countries that maintain a strong diplomatic relationship with the Burmese junta, and has considerable economic interests such as the Andaman Sea gas operations. Such interest prompts them to undermine our revolution.”