The short flight from Bangkok to Yangon on Sunday took the usual 55 minutes and transported passengers from Thailand’s thriving metropolis to the more surreal world of Myanmar’s former capital. But this time, the “tale of two cities” – one just emerging from the shadows, the other on a rapid development track – had reversed, like a movie in which the actors suddenly swap roles.
In the Thai capital, violent mobs faced off on the streets after protesters seized government offices. Just hours earlier, thugs wearing anti-government bandanas had attacked a bus full of pro-government supporters with hammers and axes. The violence evoked the 2010 protests in Bangkok, which led to the shooting deaths of almost 100 people. Back then, the red-shirted supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, former prime minister, were protesting against the yellow-backed Democrat government that had been installed by the military.
This time, the Democrat leaders are on the streets, challenging the legitimacy of a popularly elected parliament and a ruling party that crushed them at the polls in 2011. Amid sinister threats between rival groups, there is an inevitability to Bangkok’s downward spiral.
Yangon, by contrast, seems like a haven of democracy and stability – a bizarre feeling for those who remember the days when troops shot protesters and detained anyone who dared tout “democracy”. Fear pervaded the city back then. Today, rapid economic and political liberalisation has triggered a rush of western investors, tourists and international organisations. That has fuelled booms in construction, commerce and employment.
On the drive into town, past forests of cranes on building sites and trendy new restaurants and shops, banners festooning the main road proclaim Myanmar’s debut next week as host of the Southeast Asian Games. The country has also just taken over the rotating chairmanship of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The vibrant atmosphere of freedom in the former capital, however, masks disturbing scenes beyond Yangon – not least in the country’s west and central areas, where 180,000 mainly Muslim Rohingya remain in refugee camps. In northern Kachin state, conflict between ethnic rebels and the military continues.
Even so, the contrast between the two main cities could not be more stark. One is sliding backwards into chaos and violence, the other is opening up at breakneck speed.
Economically, Thailand has much to lose from political turmoil. When I arrived in Bangkok two years ago, Thailand was clearing up after floods had deluged factories and homes. That this catastrophe knocked out most of the world’s hard-disk drive assembly and crippled multinationals such as Toyota and Toshiba was a reminder of the country’s remarkable progress over two decades.
The floods knocked Thailand’s robust growth to 0 per cent the following year. But it bounced back recording annual growth of more than 6 per cent. Yingluck Shinawatra, meanwhile, “grew into” her role as prime minister.
Her key problem has been the perception she is the puppet of her older brother. She denies the charge. But it is clear that Mr Thaksin’s enduring influence drove populist policies that could be her undoing. These include a controversial rice subsidy scheme and a doomed effort to push a political amnesty bill through parliament that would have facilitated his return. Mr Thaksin was deposed in 2006 and has lived in voluntary exile in Dubai since 2008 to avoid corruption-related charges.
In the greatest irony, perhaps, Myanmar’s emergence on the international stage is now stealing some of Thailand’s thunder. While Myanmar’s economy amounts to a tiny fraction of Thailand’s foreign investment, agricultural and tourism base, it is on a fast track, with international assistance pouring in.
The lesson from the improbable switch in their political fortunes is the disastrous impact of personal agendas when they come to dominate politics. Thailand’s upheavals – a complex conflict between a handful of personalities – could derail decades of development. They will also taint the country’s democratic processes.
Myanmar endured decades under autocratic generals who ran the country like personal fiefdoms. As several Yangon businessmen and officials observed, watching Thailand fall prey again to selfish personal agendas drives home those lessons.
The author is a senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and a former FT correspondent