Thai-Burmese Relations: Mutual Necessity Trumps Historical Animosity
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Thai-Burmese Relations: Mutual Necessity Trumps Historical Animosity

By AUNG ZAW Wednesday, December 28, 2011


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.

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tocharian Wrote:
Burmese like to call Chines "paukphaws" (and Peking likes that!), but in my opinion, the Thai people are more like paukphaws to Burmese. Yes, there were fights and wars etc., but culturally Burmese are much closer to our Thai "cousins" than to the arogant greedy Peking Chinese. Some of our songs and dances in Burma are even called "yodhaya" (Ayuthayya), because of the strong cultural affinities between Thailand and Burma.

shwe moe Wrote:
Myanmar needs Thailand as leverage to counter the overzealous Chinese exploitation into Myanmar's natural resources. China has been having a field day with fire sale prices all by herself. On the flip side -Thailand needs to go beyond its needs of acquiring natural resources for domestic consumption from Myanmar and overcome the indigestion of historical animosity of Ayutthaya. Thailand needs to improve the lives of migrant workers and extended its influence within Myanmar with a true sense of democracy by putting their money where the mouth is or else its all natural gas.

Oo Maung Gyi Wrote:
History is history, Alaungphra destroyed Ayuddaya is bad. Konebaung danasty was established by Alaungphara who is a commoner.
It was just wanted to extend empire, nothing eles.
Hantahwaddy ( Hongsa )period was diffirent story. Due to Pitsanulok era ( now Thailand ) had internal palace conflict in the country, then Bayinnaung ( Thai calls Burannong )wanted to make Naraysuan to be king in Ayyuddaya, that is why Burmese King came to attack Ayuddaya and made Naraysuan to be king. Not expenssioinist theory which peoples say is totally wrong.

Moe Aung Wrote:
Than Lwin,

Amen to that.

In a way one redeeming factor in modern Burmese history is that we have never held annual triumphal marches to commemorate victory over any of our neighbors, the three giant statues at Naypyidaw being a recent example to the contrary. Look at what the Orange march in Northern Ireland does to perpetuate communal strife in that part of the world.

Than Lwin Wrote:
Even though we hear reports of cruelty and abuses by Thai employers on their Burmese migrant workers now and then, Thailand as a whole & over the years have done more good deeds to Burmese people than those in power in Burma, whether Ne Win or Than Shwe. Thai authorities are more or less internationally responsible guys. They act on news reports and international criticism. Thailand allows us to take refuge, live and work in Thai soil whenever we have to run away for our life from fascist army back home, most of the time escaping certain death. They even allow our exile media freely operate in Thailand, expose Thai employers whenever abuses to Burmese workers are reported or criticize Thai government whenever we do not like certain Thai policies over Burma, something we could never ever dream in Burma until now. For that, we should be grateful to Thailand and to Thai people. Also having similar cultures, Thailand is the one neighbour we should forge even closer ties for coming generations and future elected governments in Burma.

chris Jericho Wrote:
make sense. when you are too weak to beat the thai, you'd better join them or shall i say make peace with them.

Moe Aung Wrote:
It wouldn't be unfair to say most of the ASEAN states are birds of a feather and do belong together with their semi-democracy and patron client relationships, some more materialistic than others with China now as their role model.

Count ourselves lucky the govt has not turned the country into a nuclear waste dumping ground to earn some more..yet.

We must however mend the fences with our neighbors and stay on good terms with all of them especially with China and Thailand.

In a way Thailand has suffered a real invasion of the Burmese, this time to stay with all their customs and cultural influence. Only time will tell if the immigrants will get gradually assimilated or prove too strong and too many to absorb even if they are second class citizens for now. Mae Sot is already a Burmese majority town.

kerry Wrote:
What does the much-loved Thai Royal Family think about all this corruption and inhumanity, similar in some ways to the human rights pariah, China?

Zaw Min Wrote:
Yet another good article by Aung Zaw and Irrawaddy. Yes it is time we, Myanmar and Thai, stop the centuries old bashing of another whenever there is opportunity to trading or working together.

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