BANGKOK – Rarely do next-door neighbors move as rapidly in opposite political directions as Thailand and Myanmar have in recent years. After more than a half-century of military dictatorship, Myanmar has restored democratic rule, and now has a civilian-led government led by the former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). Thailand, by contrast, has twice reverted from popular rule to military dictatorship in the past decade, owing to coups in 2006 and 2014. What accounts for these neighbors’ reversal of political fortune?
Myanmar initiated its shift toward democracy in 2003, when the country’s military dictatorship unveiled a seven-step roadmap. At first, the plan was ridiculed as another empty promise from the country’s brutish military junta. And, indeed, the generals locked up dissidents, shot protesting monks, and kept Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders under house arrest for another six years.
It is clear, however, that the regime’s leaders saw the writing on the wall. They knew that they could not continue to sustain their power through violence and oppression, as that would ultimately cause their regime to collapse under the weight of international sanctions and isolation. What they did not anticipate was the speed at which economic and political liberalization would gain momentum. Almost as soon as genuine economic and political reforms were launched in 2011, the costs of rolling back the effort became unthinkably high for Myanmar’s military.
In the 2015 general election, the NLD scored a landslide victory. With Suu Kyi banned from the presidency for having family members who are foreign nationals, she has carved out an unprecedented role as “state counselor” to oversee government matters. President Htin Kyaw is Suu Kyi’s close adviser.