Monday, October 6, 2014

Thai PM sends signals by visiting Myanmar first, says Bangkok daily

The decision by Thailand's junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha to visit Myanmar on his first official overseas trip is significant for many reasons, says an analysis in a leading Bangkok English-language newspaper, The Nation.

Gen Prayuth might not have intended to send any signals when he decided to travel to Myanmar for his first visit to a foreign country, "but his choice says a lot", says the analysis by Supalak Ganjankhundee in the daily on September 17.

"From a Thai perspective, Prayuth's visit to Myanmar is a signal that the political development model in Myanmar might perhaps also fit for Thailand," the analysis says.

"Indeed, Myanmar's army commander [Senior General] Min Aung Hlaing said that Thailand had taken the 'right path' and praised the Thai junta during a visit in July," it said, referring to the May 22 coup d'etat that ousted Gen Prayuth's elected predecessor, Ms Yingluck Shinawatra.

The visit is due to occur in the coming weeks and the analysis lists issues involving a shared border, the presence in Thailand of refugees and migrant workers from Myanmar and the troubled Dawei project as among the reasons why Gen Prayuth has chosen to put Nay Pyi Taw first on his overseas travel itinerary.

"Prayuth's trip to Myanmar ... signifies that Nay Pyi Taw is important to Thailand in many ways," the analysis says.

It says the neighbours share a land and water border of 2,401 kilometres (1,491 miles), of which only 59km (36 miles) have been demarcated and there are many overlapping territorial claims.

Border issues have long been at the core of bilateral relations, says the analysis, adding that many "grey" activities take place along the border, including trafficking in narcotics, arms and people.

A big border issue concerns the 120,000 Myanmar refugees living in camps just inside Thailand, some whom left their homeland 30 years ago to escape civil war in ethnic minority areas.

"Governments in the past have talked to Myanmar from time to time on how to repatriate them to their place of origin. This has been a major concern in bilateral meetings over past years and it will continue to be such in the future," the analysis says.

It says the refugee issue is sometimes mixed up with that of Myanmar migrant workers seeking better lives in Thailand. "Millions of them are now in the country, helping to spur the Thai economy, but sometimes also creating problems."

On economic cooperation the analysis refers to the Dawei project and says clear decisions are badly needed on how to move on.

"Prime Minister Prayuth knew this issue very well since former Prime Minister Yingluck, whom he used to serve, talked with Myanmar leaders about this project many times," it says.

"The key problem is how and where capital can be put in the project. It is now Prayuth's decision either to go on with the project or walk away from it."

The analysis also speculates that the coup in Thailand may have influenced thinking in the Tatmadaw about the transition towards democracy in Myanmar.

"Prayuth might not be aware of the consequence of what he has done in Thailand four months ago, but his colleagues in the Tatmadaw - the Myanmar armed forces - likely got impressions that they should not allow any more liberalisation," it says.

Gen Prayuth's forthcoming visit is in line with a tradition in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for a new head of government to give priority to visiting ASEAN partners as soon as possible after taking office.

The analysis says new Thai premiers have traditionally made Laos their first destination, but that Ms Yingluck travelled to Brunei, explaining that she intended to visit Thailand's ASEAN partners in alphabetical order.