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Paving the way for closer links with Myanmar

Publication Date : 25-07-2012


Myanmar President Thein Sein yesterday concluded a visit to Thailand that ended with the prospect of further cooperation to strengthen economic ties between the two countries.

The leaders of Myanmar and Thailand played down sensitive issues such as the 92 Thai detainees at Koh Song. Thai Government House sources said only that President Thein Sein assured Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that he would look into the situation.

This first visit by Myanmar's president was highly anticipated and has concluded the way that officials on both sides wished to see. The courtesy call focused on economic cooperation, with Thein Sein's visit to Laem Chabang deep-sea port in Chon Buri being especially significant, since it suggests the two countries will be able to further their commitment to develop the Dawei deep-sea port in Myanmar.

However, the overall reaction to Thein Sein's visit was in contrast to the recent visit by Myanmar's opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who caused something of a sensation when she was in Thailand in late May.

Suu Kyi chose Thailand as her first overseas trip after being released from house arrest, and she used her visit to put pressure on both governments to improve the conditions of the millions of migrant workers from her country who are currently employed in Thailand.

In fact, Thein Sein was invited to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) in late May and he cancelled a trip to Thailand. The WEF also invited Suu Kyi.

The visit this week followed proper protocol. Thein Sein and Yingluck agreed to set up a working group to look into more comprehensive cooperation. The Thai private sector is also enthusiastic about the prospects for investment in Myanmar, and local business leaders echoed this sentiment during their meeting with Thein Sein on Monday.

Still, there is much more for both sides to do to further improve ties following the visit by Thein Sein. Economic cooperation is not the only area in which work needs to be done. Relations between the two countries have often been defined by other issues such as historical mistrust, overlapping territorial claims and ethnic insurgency along the common border.

Thai and Myanmar authorities must also put more effort into fighting the drug trade that thrives along the border. Myanmar has certainly not done enough to suppress drug trafficking by the Wa and other armed ethnic groups that have established ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government.

Thai people are paying the heavy price of this illegal trade, but unfortunately this critical issue was not raised during the talks between the two leaders this time.

Myanmar must also further demonstrate to the world that its political reform is proceeding at full speed. The Thai government and business leaders might be excited at the investment opportunities the country will offer, but business can thrive only in a supportive environment defined by clear regulations.

Thailand can contribute to the development of Myanmar by providing technical assistance to ensure that market reform goes smoothly. At the same time, companies that intend to do business in Myanmar must put the interest and wellbeing of the people there high on their list of responsibilities.

For instance, environmental issues should be heeded and regulations followed. Thai investors must not leave the impression that they are merely aiming to exploit the people and resources of Myanmar.

Bilateral relations will proceed smoothly if the two countries can prosper together, with both peoples benefiting from good diplomatic relations and business operations that are carried out in a sustainable manner.


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