Thai PM denies propping up Burma regime

June 16, 2009 (DVB), Thailand's prime minister has denied that Thai trade and investment in Burma is responsible for continuing military rule in the country, arguing instead that Thai policy has "opened channels" into Burma.

Thailand has in recent weeks become increasingly vocal in its condemnation of the trial of Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi but has repeatedly refused to join the United States and European Union in using sanctions to influence change in the country.

In an interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review today, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva denied that Thailand's continued economic investment in Burma propped up the military government.

Instead, he said, Thailand's access to the regime, as demonstrated during last year's cyclone Nargis, has allowed the international community to "do a lot of work with the [Burmese] people".

Asked whether business engagements were keeping the regime afloat, Abhisit replied that "that wouldn't be the right conclusion to draw".

"There's so many other businesses around and other governments also have contacts with [Burma], I don't think it would be the decisive factor," he said.

The vast majority of Thailand's energy supplies come from its neighbour. Many observers cite Burma's vast natural gas reserves, and the subsequent trade with China, India and Thailand amongst others, as the key preventative of economic collapse in Burma in the face of sanctions.

"We have to make sure that we ensure our people have enough energy and security," said Abhisit.

"So I don't think it's particularly surprising or special and it wouldn't in any way detract us from the goal that we would like to see [Burma] succeeding in her political transition."

Both the US and EU hold far-reaching sanctions against the Burmese regime, although the EU package does not account for a ban on investment in oil and gas.

The US has, in recent months, voiced concern that sanctions have failed to influence the regime, given the continued trade with its Asian neighbours.

Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Professor of Political Science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, echoed Abhisit's argument that it wasn't just Thailand investing in Burma, but stressed that Thailand, as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has more responsibility on the Burma issue.

Furthermore, questions surrounded Abhisit's legitimacy in office, following his 2006 coup, were generating higher expectations of his credentials in espousing democracy and transparency.

"I think the answer was an attempt to deflect criticism, but at the same time I think he has to face up to it," said Pongsudhirak.

"His government has fallen short [in its Burma policy], like prior Thai governments and the international community."

But with Thailand's reliance on Burma's energy, the issue was about finding "the right balance and the right mix here," said Pongsudhirak.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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