The outcome of the November 8 election will impact on Thai-Myanmar relations in a variety of ways in the years to come. For the first time, the upcoming poll will represent a full-fetched electoral process in Myanmar under the watchful eyes of regional and international observers as never before.
The election comes at a time when Thai-Myanmar relations have improved dramatically. Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha has established a very good rapport with President Thein Sein, which has had positive ripple effects. Other Thai military leaders also have close personal contact with Army Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing and the current Parliament spokesman, Shwe Mann, a former general. These three leaders will remain influential in shaping the country’s politics as well as bilateral ties with Thailand.
Myanmar was the first country Prayut visited after he seized power last May. He met Thein Sein several more times at a series of Asean, APEC and special summits. The two leaders were able to establish the kind of mutual trust that has allowed their countries to proceed with bilateral cooperation that is totally new.
When Prayut visited Myanmar last October, he firmly told Thein Sein that Thailand respected the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Myanmar and would never allow anyone to use its territory against its neighbour. Of course, this often cited mantra would not have made any difference if it was not proven on the ground.
Over the past five decades, all previous Myanmar leaders since Gen Ne Win, unwaveringly believed that Thailand supported the insurgent groups, made up of various ethnic minorities along Thai-Myanmar border, to undermine the central government in Nay Pyi Taw. However, the new prospect of a peace process and national reconciliation in the past two years has enabled Nay Pyi Taw to view Thailand differently with added confidence.
It is an open secret that the Thai National Security Council has been providing indirect support for the ongoing peace process in Myanmar by offering generous logistic support. Representatives of armed ethnic groups along the border often needed to travel to Yangon for meetings. The Thais have provided travel documents and other facilities for them to travel by land or air via Thailand. In the past, such activities would have been immediately condemned and spurred retaliated by Myanmar.
Indeed, the prospect of peace in Myanmar not only has eroded the deep-rooted mistrust inflicted on Thailand – but also has helped deepen mutual cooperation. In response to recent floods in central and northern parts of Myanmar, Thailand has provided huge humanitarian assistance. Even Their Majesties the King and Queen responded with financial contributions. Thai military planes also delivered food and medicine. During the Cyclone Nargis crisis in 2008, Nay Pyi Taw’s attitude was not at all welcome – unwilling at first to accept the assistance even though Thailand was the first to offer it.
In retrospect, bilateral cooperation in the past was often described as “pood-pood laew cheraja-cheraja” — talk-talk then negotiate-negotiate — without serious focus on concrete outcomes, except trade-off deals involving security and cross-border concessions on logging and mining along the porous border. Often these were concluded informally and on an ad-hoc basis among groups with major vested interests.
Now, given the “new trust” impetus of their relations, a whole range of collaboration is in the pipeline. Recently, at the Joint Border Commission, after 11 years of absence, the two countries identified new cooperative areas in anticipation of a more peaceful border and the start of the Asean Community at the end of this year, coupled with growing people-to-people contacts. Therefore, priorities have been focused on border management to facilitate border crossing, repatriation of displaced people, preventing human trafficking, drug smuggling, as well as human resource developments.
For the first time, technical and relief centres were established in Mae Sot district (Tak) and Sangkhlaburi district (Kanchanaburi) to improve skills of workers coming from Myanmar and coordinating efforts to assist victims of human smuggling. A total of 12 “One Stop Service” centres have been set up to register migrant workers – nearly 50,000 have already completed the process. The target is to have all of the estimated 1.5 million workers registered. Currently, both sides are discussing the repatriation of an estimated 120,000 displaced people, mainly from the Karen and Shan minorities, living along the Thai border.
Even more important have been increased exchanges and dialogue between the two countries’ security apparatuses. Their military leaders have been visiting each other and pledged further cooperation. Now the Senior Staff Talks (SST), which used to be an informal forum to exchange views, has been given more prominence to discuss key non-traditional security issues in addition to national, provincial and local mechanisms.
After their common dreadful experience in dealing with irregular migrant workers and human trafficking coming from the Gulf of Bengal and Indian Ocean, the Royal Thai Navy has established the so-called “Navy to Navy Talks” with Myanmar. This forum has resulted in more communication and better anti-human trafficking operations at sea. The Thais has credited their Myanmar navy counterparts with stemming the sea-bound flow of irregular migrants in recent weeks.
Beyond the bilateral scope, growing confidence and closer ties among the top leaders of Thailand and Myanmar have convinced Japan to step in, after years of reluctance, to provide financial support to the long-delayed Dawei special economic zone. This is part of the broader East-West corridor that will link Dawei with road networks snaking through Thailand’s Laem Chabang Seaport and then to Cambodia and southern Vietnam. India has already expressed interest in investing in the project.
Thailand is hoping that the current state of relations will remain unchanged after the November election. If there is a new team in Nay Pyi Taw, there is no guarantee that would be the case.
The role of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could be crucial as the opposition leader, from the National League of Democracy. She still has an extra axe to grind against Thai leaders, who have had little contact with her. During her visit to Bangkok in May 2012, Suu Kyi focused mainly on the condition of Myanmar workers here. It caused quite a stir as she openly urged them to fight for their rights.
In the annals of Thai-Myanmar relations, the two major Buddhist countries can now look ahead to become trustful partners. Given the volatile regional and international strategic environment amid fierce major power rivalry, their joint efforts will be pivotal to overcome challenges both at the border and beyond.
Source: The Nation