Thailand's new PM defends Burma

Mar 17, 2008 (AP), Thailand’s new prime minister said Sunday Westerners were overly critical of Burma and that he had a newfound respect for the nation’s military leaders after learning they meditate like good Buddhists.

"Westerners have a saying, ‘Look at both sides of the coin,’ but Westerners only look at one side," Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said in his weekly television talk show, two days after an official visit to Burma.

"Myanmar is a Buddhist country. Myanmar’s leaders meditate. They say the country lives in peace," Samak said, noting that he has studied Burma for decades but just learned that members of the junta meditate. Both countries are predominantly Buddhist.

Burma’s junta has come under global criticism for its deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters last year and its detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but Samak said he preferred to talk about bilateral trade not democracy during talks with junta chief, Senior General Than Shwe.

Many Western nations, including the United States and members of the European Union, maintain economic and political sanctions against the regime for its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government.

But Thailand and most other Southeast Asian nations are less critical and encourage companies to do business there.

Samak said he discussed investment opportunities for Thai companies in Burma, especially in the production and exploitation of natural gas and hydropower projects.

"We want to do something about dams. Than Shwe told me, ‘You can do it here and here and here. Find the investors and do it," said Samak, whose coalition government took office last month. "Myanmar only uses a small amount of electricity. Thailand needs electricity."

Thai state-owned energy companies are the largest purchasers of gas from Burma, contributing almost $2 billion a year to the military regime.

"They found new gas resources. I negotiated with them so we can sign contracts," Samak said, adding that the junta wants to build a pipeline to its largest city, Rangoon. "Myanmar doesn’t have money to build the pipeline. Thai companies will do that for them."

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