Myanmar trip is a telling first choice for Prayuth

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha might not have intended to send any signals when he decided to choose Myanmar for his first visit to a foreign country, but his choice says a lot.

Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai explained that Myanmar was chosen because this neighbouring country holds the rotating chairmanship of Asean.

Asean is important for Thailand’s foreign affairs and all previous governments have given priority to the regional grouping. But, Asean has 10 members and the characteristics if each member’s relationship with Thailand is different.

Traditionally, Thai premiers have chosen Laos as the country for their introductory visit. Laotians and Thais are similar in terms of race, roots and culture. It is also a member of Asean.

The last prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, chose Brunei as the first Asean country to visit. She said Brunei was chosen as it was first alphabetically, beginning with ‘B’. But later trips did not follow in that order.

Prayuth’s trip to Myanmar will take place either late this month or early next month and signifies that Nay Pyi Taw is important to Thailand in many ways.

First of all, Myanmar and Thailand share a very long border, on land and water, some 2,401 kilometres. In fact, the boundary is 2,748 kilometres if 347 kilometres in the Andaman Sea is included.

There are plenty of problems along this border, and only 59 kilometres have been demarcated. There many locations with overlapping claims. Border issues have been at the core of relations between Thailand and Myanmar for long time. It is the home of many “grey” activities, as well as trafficking in narcotics, arms and people.

Thailand has sheltered more than 100,000 refugees, the first of who fled three decades ago from political conflict and civil war in Myanmar to live in border areas. Governments in the past have talked to Myanmar from time to time on how to repatriate them to their place of origin. This has been a major concern in bilateral meetings over past years and it will continue to be such in the future.

The refugees issue is sometimes mixed up with the issue of migrants who fled from difficulties – including political problems – to seek better lives in Thailand. Millions of them are now in the country, helping to spur the Thai economy but sometimes also creating problems.

Meanwhile, economic cooperation, notably over the Dawei project, badly needs clear decisions on how to move on. Prime Minister Prayuth knew this issue very well since former Prime Minister Yingluck, whom he used to serve, talked with Myanmar leaders about this project many times. The key problem is how and where capital can be put in the project. It is now Prayuth’s decision to either to go on with the project or walk away from it.

A further aspect is beyond Prayuth’s control. The international community will look at his visit in light of how far democracy and reconciliation in Thailand and Myanmar can be moved forward.

Myanmar began its seven step roadmap toward democracy and reconciliation in 2003. It could be said that all the steps have been completed. The country has turned from being ruled by the military to a quasi-democratic regime in which the military has retained crucial roles in politics. Myanmar began the reforms after President Thein Sein took office in 2011. The country has undergone some political relaxation. Opposition parties are participating in political development, while armed ethnic groups have reached ceasefire agree?ments. Things, however, are still far from perfect.

Myanmar is at a crossroads now, and must decide whether it should move forward with greater democracy and pluralism in politics.

Prayuth might not be aware of the consequence of what he has done in Thailand four months ago, but his colleagues in the Tatmadaw – the Myanmar armed forces – likely got impressions that they should not allow any more liberalisation.

From a Thai perspective, Prayuth’s visit to Myanmar is a signal that the political development model in Myanmar might perhaps also fit for Thailand. Indeed, Myanmar’s army commander Min Aung Hlaing said that Thailand had taken the “right path” and praised the Thai junta during a visit in July.


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