Thai­land and Myan­mar are nat­u­ral al­lies

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - News - KAVI CHONGKITTAVORN news­room@mm­times.com Kavi Chongkittavorn is a vet­eran jour­nal­ist on re­gional af­fairs and former ed­i­tor of The Myan­mar Times.

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.

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