The Lady and a Junta, Thai-Style

By Achara Ashayagachat 23 June 2016

The visit this week by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will certainly brighten the spirits of the sombre Thai people and could also lift the profile of the Thai junta and Myanmar’s top leader.

Yet we shouldn’t romanticize too much about “The Lady” and her capacity as the political realities in Myanmar and Thailand remain daunting. Besides, she is no longer a secular saint but a fully fledged politician.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s three-day visit will include a stop in Mahachai, the seafood hub where she made a rousing speech to thousands of Myanmar laborers four years ago on one of her first trips abroad after years of house arrest.

At least 3 million Myanmar migrants work in Thailand, both legally and illegally. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would like to see many of them return home and contribute to her country’s economy – to the dismay of Thai employers who rely heavily on the workforce from next door.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to thank Thailand for embracing the migrants and to remind the government to take care of their welfare, wages and human rights. She needs to let them know she cares, since they played a significant role in persuading relatives back home to “vote for change” and install the National League for Democracy (NLD) government last November.

Thai democracy lovers and the Myanmar exile community are also curious about what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will say about human rights in general. Having spoken out for years in support of students, politicians, ethnic groups and others persecuted by the Myanmar military, will she have a good word for those opposing the military strongmen running Thailand? Expect a few vague words of consolation to Thai people about working toward full democracy.

Also on her agenda are better border regulations to tackle illicit drugs and human trafficking, and cooperation to develop economic zones in border areas.

Thailand has prepared an amendment to a 2003 labor agreement that specified only employment to include rule of law and other protection aspects. The changes should make recruitment faster and more transparent for employers and more convenient and affordable for Myanmar migrant workers.

More effort is also expected to breathe life into the Dawei megaproject. Myanmar wants Japan to invest more in infrastructure there, but Japan wants to see its Thilawa port near Yangon up and running first – even though Dawei will substantially benefit Japanese investment in Thailand and the region.

Progress on Dawei could be linked to a solution to the long-running refugee problem. However, this can only materialize if the Myanmar government and armed ethnic groups as well as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are part of the solution.

It would be a noble gesture for the leaders of the two countries to propose a pilot project for the voluntary return of refugees to Dawei, where they could contribute to, and benefit from, economic development.

The roads to Dawei are the stronghold of the Karen National Union (KNU). If a political solution is found, some returnees – from camps in Ratchaburi and Kanchanburi – could be assisted to return to Myitta in Tanintharyi region, 70 kilometres (43 miles) from the Thai border.

But the KNU says any return “must be accorded with safety and dignity”, which includes the clearing of landmines among other conditions. It is a complicated problem as the refugees have been away from their homes for two or three decades and a lot has changed. Activists say as many as 3000 villages have been destroyed or abandoned due to the actions of armed groups and the Myanmar military.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has so far been vague about ethnic issues. She has announced a new round of peace talks but the ethnic groups feel she has given too many concessions to the military, whose goodwill she needs to maintain.

So as a pragmatic politician Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will also avoid discussing issues unpopular among domestic constituents, such as the fate of the long-persecuted Rohingya, with Thailand. The Thai side probably was not going to mention it anyway.

Also expect silence on Thanlwin River dam projects, in which both Thai and Chinese players are involved, and which ethnic groups oppose. Continuing such projects at a time of peace-building would be an “opportunistic and exploitative act”, they have said.

In short, the political realities on both sides suggest that in the end, the meeting with “The Lady” could be just one more photo opportunity for Thailand’s premier to add to his collection.