Emerging 'mini-bloc' within ASEAN a concern

Emerging 'mini-bloc' within ASEAN a concern

Is South-East Asia witnessing an emergence of a bloc comprising Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, which could pose a danger to the unity of ASEAN?

It all began with the coup in Thailand on May 22 which overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. After the coup, the National Council for Peace and Order, the governing body of the coup-makers, sought to lessen the effects of sanctions imposed by some Western nations. In doing so, Thailand quietly slid into the warm, embracing arms of China. But China is not the only friend in need for Thailand.

On July 4, Myanmar's supreme commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, paid a visit to Bangkok, making him the first top leader from ASEAN to meet the Thai junta after the coup. He held a discussion with coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, to strengthen ties between Thailand and Myanmar.

Disturbingly, Gen Min Aung Hlaing praised the Thai junta for "doing the right thing" in seizing power. He also compared it to his country's experience during the political upheaval that took place in Yangon in 1988, when the tatmadaw - Myanmar's army - launched deadly crackdowns against pro-democracy activists.

The general is a rising star in the tatmadaw and a possible candidate in the running to be the next president of Myanmar. Amicable relations between the two countries suggest a new alliance of quasi-democracy being established in the region.

Such an alliance soon welcomed a new member, Cambodia. On May 31, Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, General Tea Banh, visited Bangkok and expressed his confidence in the leadership of the Thai military in bringing peace and order to Thailand.

The visit to Thailand by a top Cambodian delegate was politically meaningful in several ways. It could be used to repair the declining popularity of Premier Hun Sen at home by appearing to push for an improvement in bilateral relations.

This follows years of conflicts in the territorial dispute over the Preah Vihear Temple and allegations of Mr Hun Sen supporting former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra and offering shelter to anti-coup "red shirts". Gradually, the political interests between Thailand and Myanmar, and Cambodia seem to be converging.

With the backing of China, the three South-east Asian states could emerge as a large black hole potentially threatening democracy and solidarity in the region. This club could become a thorn in the side of ASEAN's community-building efforts.

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