The fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra met with retired Burmese junta Than Shwe during a visit to Burma last week, the first time the reclusive former general has been publicly acknowledged as still politically active since he officially stepped down in March.
Many consider the surprise meeting as a preparatory trip for current prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s current visit to Burma. The polarising former Thai premier, who is widely thought to still pull the strings in his sister’s administration, also met with President Thein Sein, he told the Bangkok Post yesterday, although the details of the talks have been kept secret.
During his tenure, which ended in 2006, Thaksin maintained warm but controversial ties with the former State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in Burma, which was replaced by Thein Sein’s pseudo-civilian government earlier this year.
This week’s trip is the second time Yingluck Shinawatra has visited Burma since she came to power in July this year, and the business dimension that dominated her brother’s relations with the regime and helped to sully Thailand’s foreign policy reputation is expected to continue.
The Bangkok Post said that Thaksin “admitted he helped smooth the way” for Yingluck to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi this afternoon, although no detail was given on how. The two failed to meet during Yingluck’s last visit in October, with Naypyidaw still wary of Suu Kyi’s influence on neighbouring states gaining ground.
Despite Yingluck’s inherent ties to Thaksin, who was reviled by Burmese pro-democracy forces for his healthy relationship with the junta, Suu Kyi noted her ascendance to office with the words: “I like that she’s a woman but the most important thing is the relationship between the two nations and our people.”
Yingluck’s main purpose in visiting Burma however is to attend the 4th Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Summit in Naypyidaw, where she will be flanked by foreign affairs minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul and energy minister Pichai Naripthaphan.
Thaksin told the Bangkok Post that the summit would help boost supplies of energy, particularly natural gas, to Thailand, which relies on its neighbour for 30 percent of its energy needs.
Perhaps most alarming to Burma observers however is the lingering presence of Than Shwe on the diplomatic scene. Little has been heard from him since state media announced his retirement upon the formation of the new Burmese government, but like Thaksin, he is thought to remain a pivotal figure behind the scenes.
Yingluck becomes the first head of government to meet with Suu Kyi – such a move by the Burmese government may have required the endorsement of Than Shwe, who is believed to hold a patron-like position over the Thein Sein administration.