Race for strategic Burmese port heats up

Pressure from Thai industry to acquire the rights to develop a strategically valuable port on Burma’s western coast is hotting up, despite a keen eye from India which is currently wooing Burma’s junta chief.

The Dawei (Tavoy) port lies on the isthmus shared between Burma and Thailand, and which separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand. The port would be a boon for both nations, and would give India much quicker access to Southeast Asian markets as talk of an ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement gains pace.

Thailand meanwhile would also look to develop a quick route for its central and western plains through a major deep-sea port, able to accommodate 300,000-tonne ships without having to circumnavigate the Straits of Malacca beneath Singapore.

The Bangkok Post has noted however that a lack of approval for the Pak Bara and Songkhla deep-sea ports in southern Thailand has made the Dawei proposal even more pressing for Bangkok.

If it gets the go-ahead, Thailand would look to build a major 160-kilometre highway and rail link between Kanchanaburi and Dawei. It would also develop a major industrial estate on a 320 kilometre-squared area of land for heavy industry and petro-chemical plants, the Bangkok Post reported, adding that a proposal to build a hydropower plant nearby to supplement the unreliable local electricity supply had been mooted.

Thailand’s concerns about losing the port to India will be placated by increasing interest by Delhi in the less ambitious Western Sittwe port, in Burma’s Arakan state. It may also be relieved by the often unreliable pace of Indian infrastructure projects, such as the Tamanthi Dam in Burma, which have the reputation of being fairly stop-start affairs.

But the timing of Thai reports could be telling, with Burma’s junta chief Than Shwe currently in Delhi to sign a range of bilateral deals, from transport projects to counter-terrorism initiatives.

The Indians, however, are leading members of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a regional cooperation mechanism that looks to integrate countries around the Bay of Bengal for economic growth, and which could help persuade the Burmese of the need for India’s presence.

Border tensions between Burma and Thailand meanwhile remain high after the Burmese shut the major Myawaddy-Mae Sot crossing. Burma claims that a dyke being built by Thailand will change the course of the Moei river that forms the border, and erode the Burmese side.

Despite such minor disputes, Thai-Burma trade via the border crossing was said to be increasing at an astonishing 55 percent year-on-year and is said to be worth some US$1.7 billion over the last nine months. The Nation newspaper warned today however that if the border remains closed, it could cost up to US$31 million in lost trade.

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