BANGKOK – Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will today visit meet Burma’s first civilian head of Government in five decades, but will pass up the chance to meet possibly Asia’s best-known female political figure, Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The first reason for the trip is to introduce herself as the first Prime Minister of Thailand”, said spokesperson Titima Chaiseng.
The Thai PM is scheduled to meet the Burma President, former General and junta Prime Minister Thein Sein, with Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul and Deputy PM Yongyuth Wichaidit also participating in the PMs first official visit to Thailand’s energy-rich neighbour.
Titima Chaiseng said that trade, investment and business links would be high on the agenda, including the multibillion dollar Dawei/Tavoy ‘megaport’ and highway project being developed by Italian-Thai Development Co., which will create a Chinese-style economic zone on Burma’s west coast. The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) says that it is preventing work continuing on the project until the Burmese Government conducts consultations with residents in the area and carries out an environment impact assessment.
Thailand is Burma’s second largest foreign investor behind China, according to figures released by Burma’s Ministry of National Planning and Development earlier in 2010.
According to the Thai PMs office, Yingluck will spend approximately twelve hours in Burma’s capital Naypidaw, departing Bangkok at 1pm Wednesday and returning to Thailand “around midnight”. Spokesperson Titima would not say whether the political situation in Burma will be discussed, but mentioned that “Thailand appreciated the democratic development in Myanmar”.
Speaking by telephone from Rangoon, National League for Democracy (NLD) spokesperson Ohn Kyaing told The Irrawaddy that “if the Thai Prime Minister wants to know the real situation in Burma, she needs to meet with the opposition, she needs to meet with the ethnic groups, and she should talk to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”.
Despite recent pledges on reform, including a surprise decision to suspend the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam in Kachin state, fighting in ethnic minority areas of Burma continues, and there are almost 2000 political prisoners in jail. Kraisak Choonhavan, a former MP from Thailand’s opposition Democrat Party and a vocal critic of Burma’s military rulers, said that “I do not think the current Thai Government cares or even knows about human rights violations in the ethnic areas of Burma”.
“I fear the trip will be all about re-establishing the scandalous style of Thaksin’s relations with the regime”, said Kraisak, referring to allegations that Thailand’s former Prime Minister forged inappropriate commercial links with the Burmese military rulers.
Nicholas Farrelly, a southeast Asia-focused academic at Australian National University, said that the Thai delegation is unlikely to raise political or human rights issues with the Burmese Government. “They understand that every country in Southeast Asia has its own problems on that score”, he said.
With Thailand’s Government pledging a renewed ‘war on drugs’ the growing narcotics trade along the porous Thailand-Burma borderlands will be up for discussion, but the Prime Minister’s spokesperson could not say whether other important bilateral issues – such as the closure of the ‘Friendship Bride’ linking Mae Sot in Thailand with Myawaddy on the Burmese side or the future of the 140,000 Burmese refugees in camps in the areas north and south of Mae Sot – will be on the agenda. She did say, however, that refurbishment of the Mae Sot-Myawaddy bridge will be mentioned, hinting that the bridge could be re-opened soon.
Tales of trafficking and extortion of some of the 2-3 million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand is common, a situation made worse by the border closure, which is forcing Burmese to enter Thailand through unofficial channels and thereby leaving them more vulnerable to abuse. Andy Hall, a migrant worker rights expert at Thailand’s Mahidol University said that both sides “need to work together to solve the serious and pressing problems both countries are facing managing migration and combatting trafficking”
Hall told The Irrawaddy that it would be beneficial if the Thai PM suggested that the Burmese authorities open more migrant verification centres in Thailand, to facilitate the hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrants still to register themselves legally in Thailand, a process that first requires the prior acquisition of official Burmese papers.
It is unclear whether such specifics will be discussed today, however, or whether the finer points will await meetings between the relevant ministers from both countries.
However, according to spokesperson Titima, a keynote aspect of the bilateral summit will be a presentation by the Thai Government of meteorological instruments worth 40 million baht to be given to the Burmese counterpart.