Love Thy Neighbor—Thai-Burmese Relations

By Aung Zaw 24 July 2012

In the last two months, Thailand has received two prominent figures from its former pariah neighbor.

Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi visited in June and now 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.

Suu Kyi’s visit was to attend the World Economic Forum held 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 Burmese.

At the forum, Suu Kyi’s message was to warn investors against “reckless optimism” in Burma’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.”

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

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

On Sunday, the former general and protégé of Snr-Gen Than Shwe landed by special flight at Don Mueang Airport. Although his arrival was rather modest compared to Suu Kyi, Thai newspapers still treated it as front page news—a sign of Burma’s newfound respectability.

Thai-language radio and television also covered the visit with discussions focusing on Burma’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.

Upon arriving in Thailand, Thein Sein did not beat around the bush but went straight to visit Laem Chabang deep-sea port in Chonburi Province.

His visit was transparently all about boosting business between the neighbors 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 absence from talks.

The fact is Thailand is the second largest investor in Burma—bilateral trade amounted to US $6.1 billion in 2011 and was only beaten by China.

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

More importantly, Thai leaders were the ones who broke Burma’s diplomatic isolation under Gen Saw Maung after he staged a bloody coup in September 1988. Then Thai Army Chief Gen Chavalit Yongchiayudh led businessmen on a controversial visit to Burma. He was not to be disappointed with the results.

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

On Monday, Thein Sein, who once served as commander of Triangle Command overseeing the Thailand, Laos and Burma border area, signed three Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) aimed at tightening economic links between Burma and Thailand.

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

In a brief press conference in Bangkok, Thein Sein thanked Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for her country’s “ongoing support for political and economic reforms.” During the press conference Yingluck did most of the talking and it was all about economic issues.

Thailand cannot readily afford to lose Dawei—the multi-billion-dollar port and special economic zone project is in doubt following Naypyidaw’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, which is the scheme’s major backer, is reportedly struggling to raise the finance needed to make it happen.

But at the conference, Yingluck thanked Thein Sein for his “reaffirmed commitment to Dawei” and added that “both sides agreed to build connectivity between Dawei and Laem Chabang,” referring to the Thai Gulf 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.

Thein Sein also met Thailand’s top executives from Charoen Pokphand, Siam Cement Group and the Petroleum Authority of Thailand who will soon be investing more in Burma.

There is no doubt that Thai investors are upbeat as Western nations, including the US, ease sanctions on Burma as they know their neighbor 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 Burma’s recent political and economic opening will not make an abrupt U-turn. There is even renewed interest among Thais to learn the Burmese language.

Burma’s natural energy resources will be the biggest area of mutual interest between the neighboring countries. Yingluck visited Burma last year and deals announced at the time included two Burmese oil field concessions granted to Thailand.

Thailand has few domestic energy supplies and benefits greatly by having a source of natural gas sitting next door. As one Thai scholar puts it, Burma is “Thailand’s energy lifeline.”

There is also a political dynamic to this relationship—it is fitting to see Burma becoming more open as the Shinawatra clan reassumes power in Thailand. Their mutual economic and political interests will no doubt lead to a period of increased interaction.

Last year, ex-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra visited Burma once again. During his visit, Thaksin had a chance to meet ex-junta chief Than Shwe despite no longer being officially involved in government business since retirement. 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 traveled to “smooth the way” for his sister’s trip—indeed, Yingluck subsequently visited Burma soon after her brother.

Thaksin, the billionaire media mogul-turned-politician-turned-fugitive, has had his eyes on the “excellent prospects” of Burma’s tourism industry for many years now. When serving as 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 express 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 neighbors 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.

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

Conversely, the Burmese also remain distrustful toward Thais. In the past, the regime in Burma accused Thailand of harboring dissidents and rebels to stage attacks on Burma, and in return the Thais accused Burma of flooding it with speed pills and heroin.

Amid this quarrelling, Burmese ethnic minority insurgents operate in border jungles and around two million Burmese migrant workers are currently employed in Thailand. Burmese refugees who fled civil wars live in the camps on Thai soil which Suu Kyi visited last June, and Burma’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, around 80 Thai citizens were detained in southern Burma after they were accused of sneaking across the border. Burmese security forces seized timber-cutting machinery, bulldozers and trucks allegedly being used for illegal logging.

Indeed, the over 2,400 km border remains a source of tension. When relations reached their 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 Burmese 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 Burma’s neighbors to the east as servile and lazy, and the Thais returned the favor by routinely discriminating against Burmese migrant workers inside Thailand.

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

As of now, deep-seated mistrust and uneasy feelings remain. But if Burma continues to open up and prosper there can be a new-found friendship between the two nations and a new dimension to Thai-Burmese 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 Naypyidaw, 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 skeptical and cautious toward Burma’s overtures and approach—they will undoubtedly be wary over increased business relations between Thailand and Burma. 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.