Everyone loves having good neighbours
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Everyone loves having good neighbours

In the past two months, Thailand has received two prominent figures from its former pariah neighbour, Myanmar.

That the recent visits to Thailand by Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, left, and President Thein Sein, above, were such big news items here shows a changing mentality among Thai people towards welcoming a former enemy now seen as a resource-rich potential business partner.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi visited in June and reformist president Thein Sein has just concluded a trip focusing on trade collaboration.

Despite both being hailed as successful in their own way, each carried contrasting messages to the kingdom.

Mrs Suu Kyi's visit was to attend the World Economic Forum in Bangkok and she received full media coverage and attention. This was a rock star visit and a huge inspiration to many Thais and migrant Myanmar people.

At the forum, Mrs Suu Kyi's message was to warn investors against "reckless optimism" in Myanmar's political reform.

"Even the best investment laws would be of no use whatsoever if there are no courts that are clean enough and independent enough to be able to administer those laws justly," she said. "This is our problem: So far we have not been aware of any reforms on the judicial front."

Was she overly pessimistic, as some observers suggested? At the very least, Mrs Suu Kyi definitely contradicted the nature of Thein Sein's visit this week.

Last week, the former general and protege of Than Shwe landed at Don Mueang airport. Although his arrival was rather modest compared to that of Mrs Suu Kyi, Thai newspapers still treated it as front-page news _ a sign of Myanmar's newfound respectability.

Thai radio and television also covered the visit with discussions focusing on Myanmar's recent political opening and, of course, newfound business opportunities in the mysterious once-hermit nation _ a traditional enemy of Thailand's ancient Lanna and Siamese kingdoms.

His visit was transparently all about boosting business between the neighbours and inviting more investment rather than preaching democracy and human rights.

Activists were bound to be disappointed, even if they were perhaps not surprised, that these thorny subjects remained conspicuously absent from talks.

The fact is Thailand is the second largest investor in Myanmar _ bilateral trade amounted to US$6.1 billion (195 billion baht) last year and was beaten only by China.

Since 1988, a flurry of Thai generals and businessmen have frequently visited Myanmar despite its appalling human rights record and the thousands of political prisoners kept incarcerated. The bottom line is that Thailand has never missed an opportunity to develop commercial relations.

More importantly, Thai leaders were the ones who broke Myanmar's diplomatic isolation under Saw Maung after he staged a bloody coup in September 1988. Then-army chief Chavalit Yongchaiyudh led businessmen on a controversial visit to Myanmar.

So it is not surprising to see that Thai-Myanmar relations remain strong despite occasional hiccups over the past decade.

Last week, Thein Sein, who once served as commander of the Triangle Command overseeing the Thailand, Laos and Myanmar border area, signed three memoranda of understanding aimed at tightening economic links between the two countries.

The MoUs focused on the Dawei deep-sea port on Myanmar's southwest coast as well as development cooperation in Myanmar and joint energy sector projects. There is a plan to link Dawei with the Laem Chabang deep-sea port in Chon Buri province to dramatically cut transport time between central Thailand and Chennai in India.

Thailand cannot readily afford to lose Dawei _ the multi-billion-dollar port and special economic zone project is in doubt following Nay Pyi Taw's rejection of a coal-fired power plant in the area and the withdrawal of domestic partner, the Max Myanmar Group. Thai construction conglomerate Italian-Thai Development, the scheme's major backer, is reportedly struggling to raise the finances needed to make it happen.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra thanked Thein Sein for his "reaffirmed commitment to Dawei" and added that "both sides agreed to build connectivity between Dawei and Laem Chabang", which he visited on July 22.

Thein Sein also met top executives from Charoen Pokphand, Siam Cement Group and PTT Plc, which will soon be investing more in Myanmar.

There is no doubt that Thai investors are upbeat as Western nations, including the United States, ease sanctions on Myanmar as they know their neighbour still has plenty to offer. Although there is more discussion needed on how Thailand's business investments will be protected, Thais are quite optimistic that Myanmar's recent political and economic opening will not make an abrupt U-turn. There is even renewed interest among Thais to learn Burmese, Myanmar's lingua franca.

Myanmar's natural energy resources will be the biggest area of mutual interest between the neighbouring countries.

Ms Yingluck visited Myanmar last year and deals announced at the time included two oil field concessions granted to Thailand.

Thailand does not have abundant domestic energy supplies and benefits greatly by having a source of natural gas sitting next door. There is also a political dynamic to this relationship _ it is fitting to see Myanmar becoming more open as the Shinawatras reassume power in Thailand. Their mutual economic and political interests will no doubt lead to a period of increased interaction.

Last year, ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra visited Myanmar once again. During his visit, Thaksin had a chance to meet ex-junta chief Than Shwe, despite the latter being retired and no longer officially involved in government business. However, there is little doubt that Than Shwe, though formally out of the picture, remains the key patron of the present regime.

When word of Thaksin's visit leaked in the media, the former Thai premier said that he travelled to "smooth the way" for his sister's trip. Indeed, Ms Yingluck subsequently visited Myanmar soon after her brother.

Thaksin has had his eyes on the excellent prospects of Myanmar's tourism industry for many years now. When prime minister, he proposed the construction of a ski resort in the snow-capped mountains of Kachin State and the development of the unspoiled beaches of Arakan State. Lately, he was said to have expressed interest in the Dawei project.

But despite the obvious economic incentives for Thailand, there are many areas the two countries need to focus on. The long border dividing the neighbours has been a source of tension for generations and remains so today as old grudges and prejudices remain.

In spite of the sweet handshake and exchange of smiles in Bangkok, historical pressures remain between the two nations.

Myanmar's sacking of the Siamese capital Ayutthaya in 1767 is still taught in Thai schools, and the Myanmar people are still portrayed as bad neighbours and socially inferior in Thai dramas and soap operas. There is no shortage of news on the ill treatment and exploitation of Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand.

Conversely, the Myanmar people also remain distrustful of Thais. In the past, Thailand was accused of harbouring dissidents and rebels to stage attacks on Myanmar, and in return the Thais accused Myanmar of flooding it with speed pills and heroin.

Amid this quarrelling, Myanmar ethnic minority insurgents operate in border jungles and around 2 million migrant workers from Myanmar are currently employed in Thailand. Myanmar refugees who fled civil wars live in the camps on Thai soil which Mrs Suu Kyi visited last June, and Myanmar's political exiles still search for a safe haven in Thailand.

The flow of drugs and the other illegal activities of armed groups including human smuggling remain a major source of concern.

Recently, 92 Thai citizens were detained in southern Myanmar after they were accused of sneaking across the border. Myanmar security forces seized timber-cutting machinery, bulldozers and trucks allegedly being used for illegal logging.

Indeed, the more than 2,400km border remains a source of tension. When relations reached a low ebb in the early 2000s, serious skirmishes broke out and the two countries engaged in a war of both words and rockets.

Both fired mortars into the other's border towns and military encampments, while the Myanmar government published several articles openly attacking prominent figures in Thailand. It added further fuel to the fire by introducing a new history textbook for fourth graders that portrayed Myanmar's eastern neighbours as servile and lazy, and the Thais returned the favour by routinely discriminating against Myanmar migrant workers inside Thailand.

Now, by contrast, Thais respect the names Mrs Suu Kyi and Thein Sein and, of course, relish doing business in resource-rich Myanmar. It is hoped that Thailand's attitude toward Myanmar will eventually change, and the Myanmar will begin to understand how to co-exist with a neighbour.

As of now, deep-seated mistrust and uneasy feelings remain. But if Myanmar continues to open up and prosper there can be a new-found friendship between the two nations and a new dimension to Thai-Myanmar relations will develop. Yet this remains hard to foretell at this stage.

Lastly, one should not overlook ethnic groups, many of whom are currently involved in peace talks with Nay Pyi Taw, who also play a crucial role in the borderlands. They will not take kindly to being a pawn in these new business deals inked between governments.

Karen, Shan, Karenni and Mon leaders remain sceptical of Myanmar's overtures. They will undoubtedly be wary over increased business relations between Thailand and Myanmar. The question remains _ who will suffer from these megaprojects in ethnic regions? And similarly, who stands to profit?

Several bilateral projects including power plants, hydropower dams and the opening of more border checkpoints will directly involve ethnic regions. These schemes require the restoration of stability and peace. More importantly, the people who live there must see a fair share of the benefits.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine, www.irrawaddy.org

Aung Zaw

Founder and editor of the Irrawaddy Magazine

Founder and editor of the Irrawaddy Magazine

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