Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Does Yingluck Have a Key to Open the Border?

Since being sworn in as Thailand's first female prime minister on Aug. 5, Yingluck Shinawatra has enjoyed four relatively straightforward official trips abroad—routine goodwill visits to Southeast Asian partners Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos.

But on Wednesday she embarked on a trickier mission—a one-day round-trip to Naypyidaw, the capital of Thailand's troublesome neighbor, Burma, a country that Thailand relies on for natural gas and cheap labor, but which has been a thorn in its side for decades with its eternal civil war, its stubborn military rulers and its stagnant economy.

Several Thai businesspeople and investors are waiting anxiously to see if the political novice—Yingluck was until recently the director of her brother's telecoms company—could succeed in convincing the notoriously difficult Burmese authorities to reopen the two countries’ main trade route between Myawaddy and Mae Sot.

“After the prime minister’s trip, there should be a strong possibility that the Myawaddy-Mae Sot checkpoint reopens,” said a Thai businessman who exports construction items to Burma. “During the trip, Thailand and Burma could sign further bilateral economic agreements, including the Myawaddy-Pa-an Highway, which will rely on Thai investment.”

Mass Communications Organization of Thailand (MCOT) reported on Wednesday that the trip was to “foster close relations and cooperation between the two neighboring countries which are both members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“High on the agenda are the opening of permanent border checkpoints, assistance to develop national and human resources, as well as boosting cooperation to jointly tackle border-related problems, including suppression of illicit drugs and illegal workers,” MCOT added.

Burma has two major cross-border trading routes—in the north is the Muse-Ruili crossing between China and Burma, while the other is the Myawaddy-Mae Sot route connecting Thailand and Burma via the Friendship Bridge across the River Moei, a road that the Burmese authorities closed on July 18, 2010, in protest against Thai construction companies developing that side of the riverbank.

Later, the Burmese revised their story, and said that “security” was the real reason the bridge had been closed, but promised to review the situation after the country's general election on Nov. 7.

Since then, the situation has lingered with the Thais appearing more desperate for a resumption in cross-border trade than their Burmese counterparts.

On Sept. 19, Burma's state-run-The New Light of Myanmar quoted the country's Commerce Minister Win Myint as saying in Parliament that cross-border trade with Thailand would only be resumed when “factors contributing much to border trade promotion” are in place.

The key factors, Win Myint said, included internal security and peace, smooth transportation operations, a bilateral agreement on bilateral trade, customs and banking agreements, and a balance of exports and imports between the two countries.

After closing the checkpoint in July 2010, the Thai authorities estimated that as much as 140 billion baht (US $4.3 billion) in trade was lost in the following year.

However, according to several Thai businessmen, that figure is too high. Most estimate the current value of cross-border trade at about 1.5 billion baht ($46 million) per month—using illegal crossings. If the border were reopened, most said, some 3 billion baht ($92 million) in goods would be crossing the Friendship Bridge every month.

Burmese dissidents in Thailand are also watching the Thai premier's visit with interest as they fear Yingluck may be talked into cracking down on illegal migrants and exiled Burmese who live on Thai soil.

“At the moment, there are no signs of a crackdown on Burmese dissidents on the Thai-Burmese border,” said Aung Moe Zaw, a border-based Burmese politician and chairman of the Democratic Party for a New Society. “But we cannot speculate with certainty.”

“With regard to the reopening of the Myawaddy-Mae Sot checkpoint—we don’t know what the regime in Naypyidaw wants from the Thais,” he said, adding that Burma’s National Defense and Security Council is authorized to rule on the decision.

Last month, a major international medical aid group, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), announced it had decided to halt all operations in Thailand due to interference by the Thai authorities. MSF programs were treating as many as 55,000 migrant workers in Thailand who mainly came from Burma.

“We had enormous difficulties with the authorities to find strategies acceptable to them and to us,” said MSF’s head of mission in Thailand, Denis Penoy, to Agence France-Presse.

“We were forced to close one of our private clinics and pushed to close the other,” he said. “We will not conduct any more activities and will have no representation in Thailand.”

The Irrawaddy correspondent Mann Myo Myint contributed to this report from Mae Sot.
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