Completing his nine-state tour of fellow member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was in Myanmar at the weekend and today arrives in Thailand. As usual the visits are packed with meetings geared to further enhance foreign and trade relations and investment, but Duterte will no doubt be observing how these two countries are faring as they pursue – at least as they appear on the surface – very different political directions.
In Naypyidaw, the Myanmar capital, he met with U Htin Kyaw, the country’s first elected president – the son of a celebrate poet and the first leader of the country not to have ties to the military. Prior to elections in 2015, Myanmar (formerly Burma) had for half a century been ruled by generals. Today, Myanmar is regarded as a fledgling democracy.
In the Thai capital, Bangkok, he will meet Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, the former commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army who now heads the National Council for Peace and Order; a military junta. Duterte made a side trip to Thailand on his way to Malaysia last November to pay homage the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away a month earlier. Prayut, a firm royalist, seized power in a military coup in 2014. For the time being, Thailand has put its democracy on hold.
But in practice, these two countries’ governments are closer than they seem. Key ministers in the Myanmar cabinet – Defence, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs among them – are selected by the head of the Burmese Army and are serving soldiers. Nor do the civilian rulers control the police and security services. The highest authority in Myanmar is not the government, it’s the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) in which nine of the 11 members are from the armed forces.
Duterte has always kept open a military option for securing his country – specifically, to defeat Islamic terrorism, the secessionist aspirations of communist rebel groups, and organised crime in the form of a nationwide illegal drugs trade.
Last September, he imposed a “state of lawlessness” following the terrorist bombing of a night market in Davao City which left 14 people dead and 60 injured. Earlier this month, he told governors and mayors from around half the provinces in the southern island of Mindanao that unless they helped him to defeat Islamic extremism and prevent violence “spinning out of control” he would impose martial law in their areas.
In Naypyidaw he met the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Services, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, an NDSC member and a strong advocate of maintaining the military’s continued role in national politics.
How these two countries maintain law and order then, will undoubtedly interest Duterte. Myanmar, in distance the furthest Asean country from the Philippines, lying at the far western end of Southeast Asia, has ongoing complex insurgencies that have raged for nearly 70 years.
There are many with the major ethnic conflicts centring on Kachin, Kayah, Kavin, Rakhine and Shan states, each of which maintains its own large army – armies fed, clothed and equipped with the proceeds of drugs. Here and next door in Thailand is the heartland of the Golden Triangle, after Afghanistan the world’s biggest heroin producer.
The truth of the matter in Myanmar is that the Burmese Army only controls the five central states that run down from the north to the south of the country. Everything west and east of there is in the hands of the rebel armies.
Thailand’s insurgency in many ways closely mirrors that of the Philippines. Like the latter, it’s exclusively in the south of the country, in the four southernmost provinces which, as in the Philippines, are predominantly Muslim. Islamist groups there have been fighting for independence since 1948; two decades before all that kicked off in its present form in the Philippines. In the last 15 years, however, they’ve stepped up their campaigns.
In both places there are efforts to reach a constitutional settlement with the groups fighting in their respective southern regions, but in Myanmar as in the Philippines the real goal of many of the rebels – there are six main groups – is independence. Nothing short of that will be entertained; their goal is to carve out a Salafist caliphate.
But Thailand’s Muslim insurgency is also inherently linked to that of the Philippines. There’s regular contact between each country’s respective Islamist groups. The Indonesian terror organisation, Jemaah Islamiyah, for example, is active in both territories, while the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is seeking to create a caliphate stretching from the southern Philippines to the south of Thailand.
Information sharing and cooperating in dealing with the threat from the Islamist terror groups will be very much on Duterte’s Thai agenda. This connection is central to the regional war on terror which also involves the Asean states of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Drugs, too, will be discussed. The Philippines has shabu, crystal meth; Thailand has yaba, methamphetamine and caffeine in tablet form. And Myanmar has a heroine habit, not least in its northern Kachin State where it’s reached epidemic proportions. In all three countries, the young and the jobless are the main market for these drugs. That’s where the addiction levels have spiked.
But Duterte, Prayut and Myanmar’s military chiefs have something else in common. They are all regular targets of international rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which repeatedly charge them with human-rights violations and crimes against humanity. Similarly, they have all come in for criticism from the UN, the US State Department and the European Union. In a moment of levity they might compare their battle scars.
Duterte’s visit to Myanmar which coincided with the 60th anniversary of the countries’ bilateral relations, and his trip to Thailand where formal diplomatic relations date back to 1949, will also deal with Asean business. This year, Manila is hosting the grouping’s 50th anniversary of the annual gathering. The theme which the Philippines has adopted is: “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World”. And these two trips are very much part of that partnering.
In Thailand, as in Myanmar, bilateral trade and ways of bolstering it will be discussed. In Bangkok the Philippine president is scheduled meet members of the Federation of Thai Industries, Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Thai Bankers Association. In Thailand, rice will likely be a key topic. The Philippines – one of the world’s largest rice importers – each year ships in vast amounts of Thai rice; in 2015, 42.4% of its massive rice imports came from Thailand.
Meanwhile, food security and agricultural cooperation were the subjects of memorandums of understanding signed in Myanmar. Last year, Philippines was ranked as Myanmar’s 16th largest investor country.
Each country also supports expatriate Filipino populations with around 16,000 Philippine nationals living and working in Thailand and around 1,900 in Myanmar. As is the custom, arrangements were made for Duterte to meet large numbers of these communities during his visits.
Certainly, the hard-nosed business of trade and investment will be as much a part of these two trips as they have been everywhere else that Duterte’s visited over the past several months. But in these parts of Southeast Asia, with their long deep-rooted history of drugs and rebellions, perhaps more than anywhere else in this region, lie the clues to dealing with or at least that can shed some light on those same problems back in the Philippines.
In the areas of combating the terror threat and tackling the illegal drugs trade, cooperation, pooling understanding and pursuing mutual interests are likely to be among the main achievements of these two country visits.