Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Talking about the Weather? Thai PM Visits Burma Today

BANGKOK — Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra visits Burma today and meet the country's first civilian head of government in five decades, but passes up the chance to meet possibly Asia's best-known female political figure, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Thai PM is scheduled to meet the Burmese president, former general and junta prime minister Thein Sein, on her first official visit to Thailand's energy-rich neighbor and major trading partner. She is accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Yongyuth Wichaidit and Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul.

“The first reason for the trip is to introduce herself as the prime minister of Thailand,” said Thai government spokesperson Titima Chaiseng.

Trade, investment and business links are high on the agenda, said Titima. Among the subjects to be discussed is the multibillion-dollar Dawei/Tavoy “megaport” and highway project being developed by Italian-Thai Development Co., which will create a Chinese-style special economic zone on Burma's southeastern coast.

The Karen National Liberation Army, an ethnic armed group active in the area, says that it is preventing work from continuing on the project until the Burmese government conducts consultations with local residents and carries out an environmental 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 in 2010.

According to the Thai PM's office, Yingluck will spend approximately twelve hours in Burma's capital Naypidaw, departing Bangkok at 1 pm on 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 [Burma].”

Speaking by telephone from Rangoon, Ohn Myint, a spokesperson for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), 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 2,000 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, “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 former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra—Yingluck's brother—forged inappropriate commercial links with the Burmese military rulers.

Nicholas Farrelly, a Southeast Asia-focused academic at Australian National University, said 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 Thail-Burmese border will also 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 Bridge” linking Mae Sot in Thailand with the Burmese town of Myawaddy, or the future of around 140,000 Burmese refugees in camps along the border—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.

Closure of the border has not only hurt trade between the two countries, but also worsened the plight of the two to three million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand.

Routinely subjected to trafficking and extortion and now forced to enter Thailand through unofficial channels, migrants are more vulnerable than ever to abuse, say experts.

Andy Hall, a migrant worker rights expert at Mahidol University in Bangkok, said that both sides “need to work together to solve the serious and pressing problems both countries are facing managing migration and combating trafficking.”

Hall told The Irrawaddy that it would be beneficial if the Thai PM suggested that the Burmese authorities open more migrant verification centers in Thailand to facilitate the hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrants who have yet 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 highlight of the visit will be the Thai government's presentation of meteorological instruments worth 40 million baht (US $1.3 million) to its Burmese counterpart.
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