Thai-Lao relations caught in limbo despite common interests and goals

national July 13, 2016 01:00

By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Na

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The relationship between Thailand and Laos was supposed to develop further than it has since the two countries passed a turbulent period when the last people of Hmong ethnicity left the Kingdom in 2010. Despite international criticism over the forced repa



It is not an exaggeration to say Thailand and Laos really do not have political or security difficulties to trouble their bilateral relations. The two countries have good reasons to build closer ties and push ahead with cooperation for their mutual interests.
However, the first official visit made by the newly appointed Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith on July 5 and 6 did not produce any new initiatives to take relations to a genuine new chapter.
Thailand was the third foreign country Thongloun visited after taking office in April. He visited Vietnam in the middle of May and Cambodia in late June. It has been a long tradition for Lao leaders to visit Vietnam first as the two countries share a common political ideology. Thailand is a low priority although people on both sides of the Mekong River share a lot of commonalties in ethnicity, language and culture.
During Thongloun’s meeting with his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha, the topics raised for discussion were mostly routine and dealt with old issues that have been left unfinished. 
The routine work included preparation for the 21st Joint Committee (JC) meeting and the 3rd Joint Cabinet Retreat between the two governments.
A government statement issued after the bilateral meeting of the two premiers said: “Both parties were also pleased with the progress of Thailand-Lao PDR Joint Survey and the Demarcation of the Land Boundary.”
The two countries set up a joint border committee in 1996 to demarcate the boundary. Indeed, the two countries have nearly completed the demarcation of the 702-kilometre land boundary but the work has been slow over the past few years. Some disputed areas – notably three villages and Ban Romkloa, where military clashes ignited between the two neighbours in 1984 and 1987 – are difficult to resolve. Both sides claim the areas and there is no clear solution to resolve the issues.
Thongloun proposed the same idea he always raised when he was the foreign minister – a prompt delimitation on mutually agreed areas in order to promote people-to-people relations.
Beside the land boundary, the two countries also need to overcome a lot of technical challenges to demarcate their 1,108-kilometre maritime boundary along the Mekong River and Nam Heung watershed. That boundary demarcation is unlikely to be finished soon.  
One concrete outcome of Thongloun’s visit last week was a new memorandum of understanding on labour cooperation to regulate and manage hundreds of thousands Lao migrant workers in Thailand. Lao migrants generally have fewer problems in Thailand than do those from Myanmar. Many of them are able to exploit ethnic, cultural and language similarities to work illegally without drawing the attention of authorities.
The two countries face a common challenge over the utilisation of the Mekong. Judging from the government statement, it seems like neither side has an idea how to tackle the issue. The two premiers did, however, agree to conduct a study on water management and to discuss systematic management of the river with other stakeholders.
Bilateral cooperation between Thailand and Laos is not enough to cope with the challenge. Management of the Mekong River requires regional approaches and cooperation from all stakeholders in the basin including China, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. Some projects such as hydropower dams in the main tributary of the Mekong in Laos generate electricity used in Thailand but have negative impacts on the people and the environment in downstream countries. Putting bilateral ties into a regional perspective, both countries needed to take joint responsibility respecting all of the affected countries.
The two premiers also discussed so-called “connectivity” to fulfil shared dreams to turn each country into a linkage for regional logistics. Thailand wants to be a regional hub while Laos has dreamed since the early 1990s that it could turn its land-locked geography into a land link connecting the entire Southeast Asia mainland. Things have gone smoothly as transport infrastructure such as roads, rail and airports have been built in Laos, but a regional rail link from Kunming in China via Laos to Thailand does not seem to have a very bright future. While Laos managed to reach a deal with China on its train project, Bangkok still does not have a clear path to conclude a deal with Beijing. To that extent, the connectivity plan still has a serious disconnect.

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