BANGKOK—In his first visit to next-door neighbor Thailand as president, Thein Sein on Monday signed three Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) aimed at tightening the growing economic links between the two countries.
The MoUs focus on the Dawei [Tavoy] deep-sea port on Burma’s southwest coast, on development cooperation in Burma, and on joint energy sector projects.
In a brief press conference earlier on Monday at Thailand’s Government House, the Burmese president thanked Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for her country’s “ongoing support for political and economic reforms.”
Questions were not permitted at the press conference, during which the Thai premier did most of the talking and which centered around economic issues. Yingluck thanked Thein Sein for his “reaffirmed commitment to Dawei,” the multi-billion-dollar port and special economic zone which is being developed by Thai conglomerate Italian-Thai Development (ITD) but about which doubts have emerged in recent months, amid concerns that ITD is struggling to raise the backing and finance needed to make the project happen.
Burmese officials have publicly questioned the viability of Dawei, with other port and economic zone projects under development inside the country at Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal near the Shwe Gas pipeline, and at Thilawa outside Rangoon, while India is backing a new port and jetty at Sittwe in conflict-ridden Arakan State.
“Both sides agreed to build connectivity between Dawei and Laem Chabang,” said Yingluck, referring to the port 100 km southeast of Bangkok that Thein Sein visited on Sunday, and which will be linked to Dawei by road, according to current plans.
During his visit to Laem Chabang on Sunday, Thein Sein was briefed by Thailand’s Office of the National Economic and Social Development Board on the port and on possible benefits of the Dawei- Laem Chabang link.
Thailand is Burma’s second-largest trade partner after China, with a reported trade volume of US $4.5 billion for the fiscal year 2011-2012.
The Thai prime minister proposed opening three additional border crossings between the two countries, one near Chiang Mai, one near Mae Hong Song and one near Kanchanaburi, though no mention was made of the 140,000 or so Burmese refugees living in camps on the Thai side of the 2,300-kilometer (1,300-mile) border, amid cutbacks by Western donors which could prompt some of the refugees to return to Burma prematurely to areas that are heavily mined.
The Thai government, however, pledged to “take care of the Myanmar labour in Thailand in a just manner and according to Thai law,” according to Yingluck. There are 2-3 million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, most of whom work in low-paid menial jobs in sectors such as fishing and construction.
Trafficking of Burmese labor is common, however, and recent years have seen frequent revelations alleging slavery and mistreatment of Burmese at the hands of Thai employers and Burmese traffickers.
Meanwhile, 92 Thais who were arrested in Kawthaung in Burma on July 4 will appear before a Burmese court on July 27. The issue was not raised at the press conference but according to Thai officials, Yingluck was set to discuss the fate of the 92 separately with Thein Sein.