Unleashing the power in Myanmar-Thailand friendship

opinion May 16, 2016 01:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Natio

8,210 Viewed

In her first meeting with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s special envoy Don Pramudwinai, last week, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi was succinct in thanking the current Thai government for improving the working and welfare conditions of mig

When she visited Thailand in November 2012, Suu Kyi was unhappy and raised eyebrows over the welfare issue while visiting the Burmese community in Mahachai, saying that her fellow countrymen and women had to fight for their rights.

Since her visit, successive Thai governments have been improving workers’ rights and welfare. As of last year, nearly 2 million out of an estimated 4.5-million workers from Myanmar have been registered.

Suu Kyi’s recognition of Thailand’s effort immediately set forth a new tone and future pathway for Thai-Myanmar relations. Before the meeting, a deep-seated fear prevailed among Thai policymakers about the possibility that Thailand would not be able to connect with the new government under the National League for Democracy, especially with Suu Kyi as one of the most powerful leaders in Myanmar. As it turned out, the 75 minutes that Suu Kyi and Don spent together were extremely cordial and lively without any interpreter covering the whole gamut of bilateral relations – including migrant workers, displaced people, the peace process in Myanmar, among others. Both sides pledged to work closely together to ameliorate cross-border issues.

What was so special about the meeting Suu Kyi had with the first special envoy from an Asean member was plain to see – she was very keen to know more about the “Sufficiency economy” concept practised in Thailand. For 25 minutes the conversation was concentrated on the application of tools for sustainable development. She said that for developing countries like Myanmar and Thailand, this concept could be a possible solution to developmental challenges they each face. The meeting has been described as a rainbow blessing the new Thai-Myanmar relationship.

It is interesting to note that after the coup that brought General Ne Win to power in 1962 up till recently, Thailand and Myanmar have never had normal and functional relations. Lack of mutual confidence and trust prevented the two countries from cooperating closely and resolving common problems even though they share similar religion, tradition and customs. Issues related to border security, the plight of migrant workers and displaced people have plagued relations for decades without any real resolve to resolve them.

For the past four decades, the Myanmar government, especially the military leadership, or Tatmadaw, believed fervently but incorrectly that the Thai side had tried to undermine the central government by clandestinely giving support to armed ethnic groups straddling the 2,401-kilometre Thai-Myanmar border. Fortunately, some progress in a peace process over the past two years, which led to the signing of a nationwide ceasefire last October, has greatly helped to diminish ill-feeling against Thailand.

Indeed, truth be told, through its Chiang Mai office, the National Intelligence Directorate has been helping the peace process from behind the scenes. It has facilitated representatives of ethnic groups involved in conflict over the border to meet and hold talks both inside and outside Myanmar. As a gesture of goodwill, Thailand was invited as one of the international witnesses to the signing of the peace agreement.

Both President U Htin Kyaw and Suu Kyi are scheduled to visit Thailand in mid-year, in response to a Thai government invitation. This is also part of the new vision and approach of Myanmar’s foreign policy under the NLD leadership in strengthening ties with neighbouring countries. Suu Kyi mentioned the new diplomatic framework briefly without any elaboration. During a meeting with Yangon-based diplomats from Asean last month, Suu Kyi discussed common issues that Asean faces. Top of her priorities is migrant workers. Myanmar, Philippines and Indonesia have millions of workers spread throughout mainland Southeast Asia in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Beyond these civilian ties, both the Thai and Myanmar armed forces continue to work together to combat transnational crime. Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is scheduled to make a four-day visit later this week to hold talks with Thai military leaders. He is also due to make courtesy calls on General Prem Tinsulanonda and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

After seizing power in May 2014, Prayut has done much to fight against human trafficking and slave labour in Thailand. His “zero tolerance” policy toward corrupt officials and organisations has brought many culprits to trial. Nearly 100 were prosecuted over the past year. Thailand’s efforts to counter human trafficking have been documented in the latest report submitted to the US State Department at the end of March. Soon, Washington will pass a verdict on whether Thailand should be kept on Tier 3 as before, or not.