Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s meeting with Burmese junta leaders yesterday ended without a resolution to the closure of the Thai-Burma border crossing at Mae Sot. Burmese premier Thein Sein told Abhisit the border would remain closed until “internal problems” were resolved.
The Burmese also rejected an offer of assistance in holding the 7 November elections, with Abhisit telling AP that they were “aware of the concerns, but did not want any outside help”.
Burma’s response on the border issue represents a change of line for the regime, which previously said it closed the border in protest at the construction of an embankment on the Thai side of the Moei River, which runs along the border. The structure was causing erosion on the Burmese bank of the river, it was claimed.
But in an interview today with the Nation newspaper, Tawin Pleansri, secretary general of Thailand’s National Security Council, said that Abhisit was told that trade on the Burmese side was not being conducted according to regulations. The border would not reopen until these problems were ironed out. The Burmese were also working to turn the town of Myawaddy into a special industrial zone, Tawin said.
Other observers suspect the closure has more to do with applying pressure on the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which has officially been absorbed into the Burmese army as a Border Guard Force. According to Hta Hsor Htee, of border-based human rights organisation, Burma Issues, the DKBA controls many of the trade routes leading from Myawaddy into Karen state in eastern Burma.
The elections, Burma’s first in 20 years, may also be a contributing factor. “The regime wants to keep observers out,” he said, adding that routes from Myawaddy inside Karen state may also be shut down as the election moves closer.
The failure to reach an agreement on the border issue will come as a disappointment to the Thai business lobby, which has reportedly lost tens of millions of baht each day since the closure on 16 July. On hearing the news, Tak Chamber of Commerce chairman Banpote Korkiatcharoen sounded resigned. Traders in Mae Sot “were suffering” from the closure, he said.
Burma becomes the last member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc to receive a visit from the Thai premier since he took up the post in December 2008. Abhisit hailed the one-day visit, during which he paid a courtesy call to junta leader Than Shwe, claiming it had boosted trade and industrial ties between the two nations.
Key to Mr Abhisit’s claims of success is a bilateral agreement to turn the Burmese port of Dawei (Tavoy) into a new economic zone. Thai construction giant Italian-Thai Development will construct a deep-sea port at Dawei, potentially revolutionising trade routes for Thai goods to the west.
The leaders also discussed drug trafficking, migrant workers and the possibility of setting up a permanent border crossing in Thailand’s Prachuap Khiri Khan province.