Thaksin’s Burma Blunder
By Aung Zaw Monday, March 6, 2006


Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has claimed that he and his government know the situation in Burma very well because the two countries are immediate neighbors. Yet last week Thaksin showed that he is, in fact, quite ignorant about Burma’s ongoing political woes.

The besieged Thai premier, who faces increasing pressure to resign, disclosed his limited understanding of current Burmese politics when he cynically urged Thailand’s three opposition parties, led by the Democrat Party, which are to boycott the snap election called by Thaksin for April, to consult detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the imperative of participating in elections.

The fact is that Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy are not calling for new elections in Burma but are insisting that the military regime honors the outcome of the 1990 elections, in which the NLD emerged the outright winner.

It is disturbing to see Thailand’s PM making blunders such as this in his attempts to exploit any issues in the political situation to confuse the Thai people.

Thaksin is a known friend of Burma’s military regime. Since he came to power, Thaksin and his government have courted the regime by offering loans, improving border trade and sending numerous delegations to Rangoon. While other governments in the region—and worldwide— are piling on the criticism of the junta and championing speedy change in Burma, Thaksin is seen defending the generals, investing in the country and promising piecemeal progress.

Thailand is Burma’s third most important investment partner, and Thai exports to Burma amount to around US $1.26 billion annually. Thaksin also has his own business interest in Burma—in 2003, Shin Corp, the telecoms company until recently owned by Thaksin’s family, signed a deal with Bagan Cybertech, the Internet service provider run by Ye Naing Win, the son of disgraced prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt.

In 2004, Thaksin went to the ancient Burmese former capital Pagan to sell his Economic Cooperation Strategy, and promised Burma aid and support worth $45 million.

He also set his sights on what he has called the "excellent prospects" in Burma’s tourism industry, proposing the construction of a ski resort in Burma’s northern Kachin State and the development of the unspoilt beaches of Arakan State.

At the same time, his administration has cracked down on Burmese seeking economic and political refuge in Thailand, raising concerns about a conflict of interests and doubts about Bangkok’s ability to act as an honest broker in Burma’s political standoff. The “Bangkok Process,” hosted by Thaksin’s government two years ago ostensibly to advance democracy in Burma, fizzled out when Burmese representatives failed to turn up for a planned second session.

Sadly, Thaksin’s government, by criticizing Burmese migrants and refugees living in Thailand, has played the nationalism card in order to boost his popularity.

In early 2004, UN human rights envoy Hina Jilani visited Thailand and declared: "Many of the Burmese human rights defenders feel very insecure with regard to their freedom of movement inside Thailand." Not surprisingly, Jilani received a cool reception in Bangkok.

Thaksin’s hard stance on Burmese in Thailand has also alarmed some US legislators in Washington. 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.

Somchai Homlaor, head of the Bangkok-based rights group Forum Asia, once told The Irrawaddy that Thaksin’s tough stance on Burmese refugees and political dissidents living in Thailand was seen as part of an appeasement policy aimed at forging better relations with Rangoon.

During the Asean summit in Bali, Indonesia, in 2004, Thaksin surprised many of the delegates by giving Burma his unconditional support and praising Khin Nyunt’s “sincerity.” Philippine president Gloria Arroyo later told journalists that Thaksin defended Burma throughout the entire summit.

But Rangoon was not that pleased with Thaksin. The irony is that the regime believed Thaksin to be too close to Khin Nyunt. When Khin Nyunt fell in October that year, Thaksin lost his hotline to the Burmese top brass, and even now the Thai government has little communication with the regime.

Other strains were put on Thai-Burmese relations when the regime learned that Thailand’s Shin Corp listened in to phone conversations at the War Office in Rangoon, when Khin Nyunt was removed in 2004.

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