Former Foreign Minister reviews Thai-Burmese relations – The Irrawaddy

Former Thai foreign minister Dr Surakiart Sathirathai said that Thailand’s relations with Burma have deteriorated since the 2006 military coup and the current government has been “putting more pressure on the Government of Myanmar [Burma],” with the number of high-level meetings much reduced from the pre-coup era.

Speaking at a forum on Thai foreign policy at Chulalongkorn University, Surakiart said that during the Thai Rak Thai administration, the government “worked to bring Myanmar in from the cold” with Thai diplomacy a key factor in cajoling the junta into a 2003 announcement that they would draft a new constitution as part of their so-called seven-steps roadmap to democracy.

However, the new Constitution, which maintains military rule in Burma, was adopted in controversial and tragic circumstances in the days after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma’s Irrawaddy delta in 2008. An estimated 140,000 people died in the disaster, but the junta proceeded with what was widely described as a sham referendum on the new Constitution, which lays the basis for elections planned for sometime this year.

Surakiart was a key figure in the Thaksin Shinawatra government between 2001 and the Sept. 19, 2006, coup, when the Thai military deposed the prime minister while he attended a UN general assembly meeting in New York.

Thailand fostered new trade and investment links with the junta during Thaksin’s rule. And Shin Corp, the telecoms company once owned by Thaksin’s family and a factor in the looming Feb. 26 court ruling on Thaksin’s THB 76 billion in frozen assets, previously signed a deal with Bagan Cybertech, an Internet service provider run by Gen Khin Nyunt’s son.

Khin Nyunt was prime minister of Burma, before being ousted in a purge led by ruling strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Khin Nyunt was seen as close to Thaksin and relative to the rest of the junta, open to dealing with the West. After Khin Nyunt’s removal in 2004, it appeared that relations between Bangkok and the junta worsened, well-before the the 2006 coup, according to some observers.

Dr Puanthong Pawakapan, an international relations teacher at Chulalongkorn University, said that Thailand did not really have a coherent Burma policy. She said that the current Democrat Party-led government seemed to take its cue from the US when it comes to dealing with Burma and did not have any clear set of targets, or means to achieve them.

Surakiart earlier recommended that “no prerequisites be set when negotiating with the Myanmar government.”

Puanthong said that while the Abhisit government requests the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of Burma’s political prisoners, and seeks free and fair elections in 2010, it tempers these requests with claims that “engagement” with the junta is the only way forward, stating that “Thailand will not interfere in domestic policy.”

While it cites the recent US face-to-face talks with the junta as vindication of the Thai approach, she said the Thai government does not acknowledge that US sanctions remain a core aspect of its policy, in contrast with the approach taken by Thailand and its Asean counterparts.

She lamented Thailand’s abdication of leadership on Burma policy, saying that Bangkok could, at one stage, have led Asean in trying to promote democracy and human rights in Burma. However, as Thailand’s business and natural resource links with the Burmese junta grows, the government’s will to exert influence on the junta has diminished.

Thailand’s business community relies on Burmese workers to fill roles that many Thais do not want to undertake. However, this has failed to result in a clear or decisive government policy on the estimated 2 to 3 million Burmese working illegally in Thailand, after fleeing a struggling, state-dominated economy at home, according to Dr Puanthong.

Despite the mutual dependence, Thailand’s Democrat government is undertaking a Nationality Verification scheme that has alarmed many Burmese, who fear they will have to return home as a consequence. Previously, the Thaksin government engaged in sporadic criticism of Burmese migrants and refugees living in Thailand, often timed around official visits to Burma by Thai officials.

In recent days, the Democrat government stirred international opprobrium by attempting to deport thousands of Karen refugees back to Burma, from where they fled fighting in 2009. The area from where the refugees fled is said to heavily mined.

The Burmese regime demands that militias from the country’s various ethnic minority groups become border guards in the state security apparatus before the 2010 elections. Most of the militias refuse to do so, raising fears that renewed fighting in Burma could send hundreds of thousands more refugees into Thailand.

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