Myanmar has now become Thailand’s most pivotal neighbouring country following its recent election won overwhelming by the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The reason behind this impression is quite simple:
After all, its western neighbour has maintained the same pattern of behaviour and response for the past six decades. It has been only in recent years under the government of President U Thein Sein that the Thai-Myanmar relationship took a positive turnaround.
From now on, this situation could change. It remains to be seen how the incoming government’s policy and practices will impact on broader Thailand-Myanmar relations.
Judging from the limited information available from open sources ahead of the government’s policy announcement, overall Thai-Myanmar relations could remain intact with some modifications on issues concerning the livelihood of Myanmar people along the border and those working in Thailand. Top of the agenda are two issues: the terms of reference for the mega-project in the special economic development zone in Dawei, and the fate of the estimated four million plus Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand. At the very least social protection and benefits on all people involved must be improved. Daw Suu made these points when she first visited Thailand in November 2012. Since 1962, after General Ne Win seized power, Thailand has never had normal relations with Myanmar, which shares a 2,401-kilometre common border. The main attribute was the lack of trust by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) about the Thai military. Nay Pyi Taw believed fervently that Thailand secretly backed the warring minorities to undermine the central government. Bangkok vehemently denied such allegations, but to no avail.
Throughout these intervening years, practically all bilateral engagements were conditioned on the Thai side’s willingness to assist the Tatmatdaw in cracking down on the armed ethnic groups in exchange for cooperation on fighting drugs, trafficking and smuggling along the porous border. The outcome of these efforts was not satisfactory.
However, bilateral ties have improved significantly in the past two years when the Thai side began to seriously crack down on illegal fishing, slave labour, human trafficking in response to growing pressure from the US and EU. Last year, Thailand was listed in Tier 3 on the US State Department’s annual report on human trafficking, and also appeared on the EU watchlist on illegal fishing.
Thailand submitted this year’s report to Washington in mid-January with details of prosecution of culprits involved in human trafficking and slave labour. Last year, 29 officials were arrested and face both disciplinary and criminal charges for complicity in trafficking. Compared with the previous two years, overall human trafficking and slave labour situations in Thailand have improved greatly due to better policy coordination among agencies and speedier prosecution of perpetrators. But, Washington will have the final say on whether Thailand’s status is to be upgraded.
After the May 2014 coup, the government set up a special task force to work on tangible ways to improve these much reported and horrible conditions in Thailand.
Last year a budget of nearly Bt2.6 billion (or US$71.95 million) was allocated to stop human trafficking and illegal labour. Former President Thein Sein personally thanked General Prayut Chan-o-cha when he visited Nay Pyi Taw in October for the improvement in Myanmar workers’ welfare. Obviously, more could be done on the Thai side to ensure that rights of workers are fully protected, as well as boosting living conditions for them and their spouses. Thailand welcomes and needs migrant workers with proper documentation, but rampaging corruption and malpractice are still plagues the registration process.
As the political transition continues in Myanmar, Thailand is hopeful that with cooperation between the Tatmadaw and the NLD administration, policies towards Thailand will be maintained to a certain degree. After the election, both General Min Aung Hlaing and Daw Suu met to achieve a smooth transfer of power. Their mutual trust also rendered positive impacts on Thailand-Myanmar ties, as the general has close links with Thai leaders.
When the peace accord was signed by eight armed ethic groups in October, Thailand was invited to sign as one of the witnesses to this two-year peace process. It was a sign that the behind-the-scenes role by Thailand was well recognised by all stakeholders. Armed minorities straddling the Thai-Myanmar border, especially the powerful Karen ethnic group, signed on to the peace agreement.
Recently Daw Suu reiterated that the NLD-led government will give priority to the peace process, a prerequisite for further economic and social progress and development. As such, Thailand can be assured that the new government needs stable and predictable bilateral relations.
Of late, both consultation and cooperation between the military and navy officials from the two countries have increased, in particular among senior ranks. High-level committee meetings between their senior military officials as well as Navy-to-Navy talks have strengthened security cooperation. Of late, intelligence exchanges have included illegal sea movement of potential human traffickers in the Gulf of Bengal.
Furthermore, Thai development officials from bordering provinces have held discussions with their counterparts to work on human resource development programmes to prepare for a burgeoning border trade. Better border management from both sides is crucial to promote trade and people-to-people contacts, both in the context of Thailand-Myanmar relations – as well as economic integration under the Asean Community. Both countries are important production value chains and are part of the East-West economic corridor.
Finally, sticky questions of border demarcation will soon surface. The two countries have postponed dealing with the issue due to lack of domestic preparedness and budgetary constraints. Problematic issues include overlapping land claims around Three Pagoda Pass in Kanchanaburi province and shifting banks along the Mae Sai and Ruak rivers in Chiang Rai. The most urgent task now is to conduct a detailed joint survey, including an auto-photo map of the porous border so experts can do further study.
With the new government taking shape, Thailand needs to clear up existing mutual misconceptions and build up new confidence to promote a strong and forward looking strategic partnership in the future.