By The Nation / June 6, 2016
-The upcoming visit of Daw Aung Suu Kyi to Thailand marks an important milestone in Thai-Myanmar relations – for herself and her country, the most anticipated event since Myanmar achieved a freely and fairly elected government last November.
Given her status – and that of the National League of Democracy government – the three-day trip from June 23-25 will generate great significance, both in symbolism and substance.
Firstly, after her first call – on the Asean chair, Laos – she made the right choice to visit Thailand, with which it shares a 2,401-km border. As the world’s best known democratic leader, her presence here is also a big boost to the country, now under a military government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. For the past two years, Bangkok has been busy trying to win support from abroad, near and far.
Within the regional context, her magnanimity renders more influence than Western leaders, due to her global appeal and political role as the country’s foreign minister, albeit at a nascent stage. She is also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Her visit shows a grasp of delicate political contact in this part of the world, particularly Thailand, which she will deal with more often from now on.
Most importantly, she inspired a young generation of Thai democratic advocators, who learned from her demeanour and sacrifice. Over time, they helped heal the historical enmity and mistrust, laying the groundwork for better understanding and appreciation on both sides.
It is a historic irony that when Myanmar was non-democratic Thailand was run by elected governments, until recently. Notably, following the bloody crackdown on students and pro-democracy protesters, Western countries imposed a trade embargo against Myanmar in August 1988. Four months later, Thailand broke the embargo with a visit by Defence Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh under the Chatichai Choonhavan government.
In retrospect, the Thai-Myanmar relationship was best described as a marriage of convenience. Before the political transformation, Myanmar needed friends and Thailand was one of the closest in terms of economics and security. Thai and Myanmar military leaders engaged one another using these incentives to sell their policies, despite a complete lack of mutual trust. Myanmar thought Thailand manipulated armed ethnic groups to undermine the central government and to extract economic benefit. In response, the Myanmar leaders used forest and mineral concessions whenever they wanted to co-opt the Thai authorities and shifted border security policies in regard to armed ethnic groups straddling the porous border. Indeed, until recently, this transaction interest approach was a template for cross-border contacts.
Second, Suu Kyi’s visit will herald a new relationship with Thailand with increased mutual trust, as not seen since 1962. Truth be told, for the past five decades, our countries have never enjoyed normal functional ties like others. Her visit testifies that Thai-Myanmar ties have now overcome these old pitfalls.
The most important immediate outcome will result from confidence of the estimated 4.5 million Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand, whom Suu Kyi pledged to help when she visited the Kingdom for the first time in November 2012. They were the biggest and most potent NLD supporters outside Myanmar.
In past years, Thailand has been trying to improve the conditions and welfare of all migrant workers from neighbouring countries. But the efforts have not yielded the kind of results sought by the international community due to bureaucratic red tape and rampant corruption on both sides. These workers were often victimised whenever they applied for work permits and stay-on visas. Exploitation by private operators has been widespread among workers in the fishery sectors. Daw Suu will be pleased to find out that as of last month, out of 1.6 million registered workers from neighbouring countries, over 1.5 million here are from Myanmar. As such, they are entitled to receive the same local wages with benefits including education, welfare, even changing jobs and other rights. Further capacity-building and technical skills are in the offing to encourage them to remain here. That is a far cry from what she witnessed during her first visit to a fishing hub in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon, in 2012 when she expressed concern over the plight of these workers.
At last month’s meeting in Nay Pyi Taw with Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, Suu Kyi acknowledged the progress made with Myanmar’s workers and pledged to work with Thailand to share the responsibility and bring them back home. Such efforts will also be made with the estimated 120,000 displaced people and refugees from Myanmar living at nine camps on the Thai-Myanmar border.
In addition, as Prayut reiterated recently, Thailand will play the role of peacemaker in helping Myanmar try to achieve national reconciliation and peace. When the ceasefire agreement was signed in Nay Pyi Taw last October, Bangkok was invited as a witness in recognition of its contribution to the peace process. Before the current government was installed, meetings among government and armed ethnic groups were held both inside and outside Myanmar, mainly in Chiang Mai. Now, all future meetings related to peace dialogue will be held inside Myanmar.
Furthermore, the Dawei Special Economic Zone, which now has three partners – Thailand, Myanmar and Japan – has been given a further green light. President U Htin Kyaw said the project should go ahead. Previously, there was uncertainty on whether the new government would commit to the long-delayed project to develop a port facility and industrial zone at this key southern port, with links planned to Laem Chabang in eastern Thailand.
Third, both countries are key members of the Asean Community and share the same vision for the future. Their concerted efforts in all Asean schemes is crucial for the success of future community-building, and promoting action plans in the Asean Vision 2015.
As the ties go from strength to strength, they will inevitably lead to better coordinated policies and positions both in and outside Asean. The two countries share many strategic assets and challenges at the crossroads of major powers linking South Asia and Northeast Asia. From now on, the US, China and India can no longer hedge on Thai-Myanmar rivalries, as before, to advance their interests. The most urgent steps to be taken in the near term, in the absence of any tangible bilateral agreements, are to form a stronger strategic partnership. Together, the two countries can increase their power projection and level the playing fields, as both are now game-changers in their own right.