Since the 1988 military coup in Burma, the Thai and Burmese governments have had an up-and-down relationship of necessity. Now, with Burma becoming more open and the Thaksin Shinawatra clan reassuming power in Thailand, their mutual economic and political interests may lead to a period of increased interaction. But generations-old grudges and prejudices still remain.
The recent visits to Burma by ex-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin and his sister, current Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, served to highlight both the internal dynamics within Thailand and Burma and the status of the current relationship between the two countries.
Thaksin arrived in Burma first and met with both President Thein Sein and ex-junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who several Burmese officials had recently sworn was retired and no longer involved in government business.
|Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].|
When word of Thaksin’s visit leaked out, he said that he had traveled to Burma to “smooth the way” for his sister’s trip, most likely in the same way that Than Shwe “smoothed the way” for Thaksin’s meeting with Thein Sein—i.e. the two supposedly ex-top dogs cut the high-level business deals and then let the current government chiefs sign the documents and take the photo ops.
Burma’s reserve of natural energy resources may currently be the biggest area of mutual interest between the neighboring countries, and the deals announced while Yingluck and her energy minister were in Burma included the grant of two Burmese oil-field concessions to Thailand.
Thailand has few domestic energy supplies and benefits greatly by having a source of natural gas sitting literally next door. As one Thai scholar recently put it, Burma is “Thailand's energy lifeline.”
Burma benefits from these circumstances by having an eager customer for its most valuable export, which also gives it leverage to cut better deals with other customers in the region, particularly China. In addition, Burma gains another willing, sanctions free investor in infrastructure development such as the Dawei deep-sea port, and Thailand is able to construct environmentally sensitive projects on Burmese soil and avoid protests and health hazards at home.
Thaksin is more astute than his Burmese counterparts at gauging a country’s future economic prospects and identifying lucrative business opportunities. He realizes that Burma is both a largely untapped market as well as a strategic source of natural resources, and knows that he needs a strong foothold in the country before sanctions are lifted and Western competitors race into the economic fray.
In this respect, Thaksin is way ahead of the game. During his first stint in power, he courted the Burmese regime by directing his government to offer loans, improve border trade and send numerous delegations to Rangoon.
These actions served both Thai national and Thaksin’s personal interests. In 2004, Shinawatra Satellite Co, a telecoms company owned by the Shinawatra family, leased a satellite service to Bagan Cybertech, a Burmese company owned by the son of Gen Khin Nyunt, the former Burmese prime minister and spy chief. Thaksin was later found guilty by a Thai court of pressuring the Thai Foreign Ministry to approve a 4 billion baht (US $128 million) loan to Burma to pay for the deal.
Following the formation of the Shin Corp-Bagan Cybertech partnership, Thaksin scratched the Burmese generals’ backs by making life difficult for Burmese dissidents and rebels operating inside Thailand.
Thai-based exiled Burmese were repeatedly harassed and at one point in 2004, US Senator John McCain sent a letter to Thaksin citing “credible, first-hand reports” that Bangkok had taken steps to curtail the activities of democracy activists in border areas. “As a friend of Thailand, I write to express my deep concern over recent actions by Thai authorities along your border with Burma,” McCain wrote.
Thaksin has also had his eyes set for quite some time on what he has called the “excellent prospects” in Burma’s tourism industry, proposing the construction of a ski resort in the snow-capped mountains of Kachin State and the development of the unspoiled beaches of Arakan State.