Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva will make his first visit to Burma on Monday where it is rumoured he will size up post-election economic interests for Thai business.
The looming trip to Thailand’s western neighbour is the first of Abhisit’s two years in office, and comes after several stalled attempts. Thailand, who will be keen to keep diplomatic relations close, is the largest foreign investor in Burma, with interests amounting to around US$7.41 billion between 1988 and 2008.
Also rumoured to be included in the meeting is a discussion of Burma’s 7 November elections. Thailand’s stance on the polls has differed from much of the international community who feel conditions surrounding the vote are not free and fair. Although Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya attended a Friends of Burma meeting last week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the foreign ministry said yesterday that the elections will be “a crucial step, which could lead to national reconciliation and unity there”.
Abhisit may struggle to find moral high ground when discussing the elections and in particular the detention of political prisoners such as Aung San Suu Kyi, with his own passage to office opened by the military and Thailand estimated to be holding as many as 500 political prisoners, largely opposition ‘red shirts’, behind bars.
Mirroring criticism of Burma, Thai academic Kasit Penpimant said in July that “these people are denied bail, have no access to attorney’s consultancy and have to live in crowded compounds with those imprisoned under other criminal offences”.
Thai senator Kraisak Choonhavan, who chairs the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) and is a vocal critic of the Burmese regime, said that while the issue of Thai political prisoners is yet to be raised by the red shirts in Thai parliament, “it can be brought up at any time, but they [red shirts] have not even brought it up…not even the killing of [former army chief turned red shirt] Sae Daeng or prisoners who have not been charged”.
One person who has questioned the validity of Thailand’s current military constitution was Aung San Suu Kyi, who in April this year appeared to criticise its drafting and the subsequent political instability.
The issue may be used as a riposte by the Burmese junta. Kraisak said however that he was confident Abhisit would be able to “handle himself and keep his integrity and that of the nation”. He added however that “increasingly it has become more and more difficult since the red shirt uprising” but “our standards have been fair to the people in comparison to Burma”.
The future of business relations between the two countries will however be the thrust of the meetings. Kasit Piromya said in the Bangkok Post that, “We are interested to learn which sectors will be of interest to Thai investors and confirm our readiness to cooperate on the economic front”.
Burmese economic analyst Aung Thu Nyein speculates that “If I were a Thai businessman I would be looking mainly at the short term extractive sector”. He indicates however that Thai business would be keen to look into Burma’s agriculture sector, which could have huge potential for Thailand, should the junta allow investment. This comes as a result of a dire lack of domestic credit for Burmese farmers and the subsequent under-performance of the sector.
Another major talking point will no doubt be the Dawei (Tavoy) infrastructure project that Thailand is pursuing, and which will look to build a new deep sea port in the town as well as significant infrastructure linking it to Thailand.
The delegation may also discuss the future of the millions of Burmese refugees who shelter in Thailand, as their post-election fate remains a grey area within the Thai government’s plans. Kraisak said however that their repatriation is unlikely, and stated that the Kasit Piromya, who first sparked the rumours of return, “is trying to say he was badly misquoted”.