Thailand and Myanmar are natural allies
AT their 9th annual joint bilateral meeting in Nay Pyi Taw in August, both countries proclaimed from now on they are “natural strategic partners”. It was the right time, coming on their 70th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations. The new status is unique as it highlights and recognises the strategic value of their shared traditions, culture, religion and way of life.
Thailand and Myanmar have decided their priorities are development to improve the lives of the people in the two countries, especially those who live in border areas. They believe that by working together with “natural feeling from the heart” and without any pretensions, they will be able to tackle any future challenges that arise.
After all, they have demarcated only 93 kilometres of their porous 2400-km border. Only sustained mutual trust can guarantee a good outcome. To do so, there will be frequent meetings of their officials at all levels.
Three weeks after upgrading their ties, the first challenge came unexpectedly. On September 10, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand scheduled a panel discussion, “Will Myanmar’s Generals Ever Face Justice for International Crimes?” Given the new level of sensitivity and commitment following the bilateral meeting in August, Thai authorities decided at the last minute to ban the event as its title was thought to be too provocative. The police action attracted strong criticism. It was the first time that a programme on the Rohingya at the FCCT had been banned, a sign that Myanmar-thai relations are no longer business as usual. Under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, Thai police have banned six events at the FCCT.
The long-term challenge will be the Rakhine State crisis, which Thailand must handle bilaterally, regionally and internally. The international community continues to pressure Myanmar over the repatriation and resettlement of Rakhine’s Muslim refugees. The size and complexity of the crisis has defied all efforts and initiatives to resolve the problem. Lack of trust and of guarantees of safety and shelter, as well as delays in the citizenship verification process, have made matters worse.
As a neighbouring country, Thailand is taking small steps by sharing some basic principles and practices of economic self-sufficiency with Myanmar. This exchange has been going on for years, but it was not until recently that both countries decided to develop “model villages” in Rakhine based on the kingdom’s self-sufficiency economic principles.
Last month, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited two prominent figures in economic development in Myanmar: U Aung Tun Thet, chief coordinator of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, and U Nyi Pu, chief minister of Rakhine. They visited centres of knowledge about the practice of economic self-sufficiency.
U Aung Tun Thet, who is Myanmar’s most well-known economist and a noted former UN official, told the author on September 28 that they were impressed with the results of the Thai approach. He said this policy would be effective in Myanmar, especially in ethnic areas. “The model promotes dignity, tolerance, inclusiveness and morality,” he said.
U Aung Tun Thet said he had learned about the holistic aspect of economic self-sufficiency a long time ago. He lived in Thailand when his father was serving in Bangkok in 1952. He said the experience and knowledge he gained, and the networking he did, have been crucial for the model villages now being set up in ethnic areas. Apart from one in Rakhine, which the two governments agreed to earlier, he mentioned those in Mon State, Kayin State and Tanintharyi Region. He said these villages will help to facilitate the safe, dignified and sustainable return of displaced persons to their places of origin.
With his long experience in economic planning and implementation, he said he knew exactly what would be useful for his country’s development, and that in the near future there will be lots of exchanges between the two countries on development in Myanmar.
The Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA) is providing training and scholarships for Myanmar officials and young people as part of its joint effort with Myanmar to carry out the 2019-2021 Thailand-myanmar Development Cooperation Framework.
Thailand has made much headway in developing local infrastructure projects in Myanmar. It provided aid for the road between Kayin’s Myawady and Kawkareik, which is now considered one of Myanmar’s best roads. To build on this success, Thailand is working with Myanmar to upgrade the strategic trade road between Eindu and Thaton, a crucial part of the East-west Economic Corridor. In addition, with Thailand’s aid, the second friendship bridge between Mae Sot and Myawady will soon open to expand border trade and people-to-people contacts. The mammoth task of realising the Dawei Special Economic Zone continues but progress has been slow, as both sides are focusing on improvement of the two-lane road linking the zone to Kanchanaburi province.
On the issue of migrant workers, Thailand’s upgrade on the US Trafficking in Persons Report this year to the Tier 2 Watch List was the result of years of hard work as well as improvements in the livelihoods of millions of Myanmar migrant workers in the kingdom. Over 2.3 million have been registered and protected under Thai labour law, but further improvement of their rights is crucial.
Another long-standing issue is the voluntary return of Myanmar refugees. A second batch of 93 displaced persons was returned in May, and both countries are planning for a third batch to be sent back later this month. Since 1984, Thailand has provided shelter and other aid to an estimated 100,000 displaced people from Myanmar living in nine temporary shelters in Mae Hong Son, Tak, Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi provinces.