MYANMAR’S RELATIONS WITH THAILAND AND SOUTHEAST ASIA

MYANMAR’S RELATIONS WITH COUNTRIES IN ASIA

In recent years, Myanmar has been trying to improve relations with its neighbors. It is regarded as part of Southeast Asia but it is also in the immediate hinterlands of India, China and South Asia and is strongly influenced and engaged with them as it is with Southeast Asia. Myanmar is a member of ASEAN and a member of the seven member BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Forum), which also includes Bhutan and Nepal.

The leaders of the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia all demanded the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and for Myanmar to make democratic reforms. Indonesia put more pressure on Myanmar to reform and democratize and release Aung San Suu Kyi than other Southeast Asian nations. Indonesia perhaps knew better than the others what it was talking about as it had been ruled for decades by a military-dominated government.

Leaders from Cambodia and Myanmar visited each other’s country and gave each other support in the face of criticism from the international community.

Myanmar and ASEAN

Myanmar became a member of ASEAN (an alliance of 10 Southeast Asian nations) in July, 1997. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed led the effort to get Myanmar admitted. Afterwards the European union canceled meetings with ASEAN and the Myanmar military government didn’t make many changes. Many Southeast Asia nations in the group have kept their distance from Myanmar.

ASEAN members tried to get Myanmar to change through a policy they called constructive engagement. The organization consistently urged Myanmar to free Aung San Suu Kyi when she was under house arrest and make democratic reforms. In June 2003, ASEAN broke its tradition of not criticizing its members and called for the Myanmar government to release Aung San Suu Kyi. There was even some talk of expelling the nation from ASEAN. The effort was led by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, who earlier had advocated a hands off policy towards Myanmar. Little came of the effort as ASEAN failed to back up the critique with any action, threats, policies or punishment.

ASEAN formed the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus to address the lack of democratisation in Myanmar. At the annual ASEAN Summit in January 2007, held in Cebu, Philippines, member countries failed to find common ground on the issue of Burma's lack of political reform. During the summit, ASEAN foreign ministers asked Burma to make greater progress on its roadmap toward democracy and national reconciliation. Some member countries contend that Burma's human rights issues are the country's own domestic affairs, while others contend that its poor human rights record is an international issue.

Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: “ASEAN has repeatedly urged Burma to comply with ASEAN norms and standards and protect its reputation. But Rangoon has never complied. Normally, the military junta leaders would rather ignore them completely or if necessary, prefer to meet the demands half way at the time of their own choosing. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation November 8, 2010]

Myanmar was supposed to take over the leadership of ASEAN in 2006 but was pressured by other ASEAN members to give up its turn. The ASEAN members applied pressure because they in turn were pressured by the United States and the European Union who said they would boycott ASEAN meetings if they were hosted by Myanmar.

China took off a little of the sting and humiliation of the ASEAN snub by pulling out of attending the ASEAN summit in Laos and instead sent its foreign minister to Myanmar, which it described as a “friendly country.” In July 2005, at the same time that Myanmar was receiving a sharp rebuke at an ASEAN meeting in Laos the Chinese foreign minister was visiting Yangon and having meetings of “matters of mutual interest” with the generals there and called Myanmar was a “friendly country.”

Myanmar Takes Long-awaited ASEAN Chair, but Can it Cope?

In 2014, Myanmar took on the long-coveted role as chairman of ASEAN, the regional grouping of Southeast Asia but many wonder whether it can cope. Reuters reported: “Myanmar may struggle to cope with the onslaught of meetings — a total of 1,100 — it will host in 2014 when the role of chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations formally begins. "Burma can't even get its own human rights house in order, how can it be expected to lead regionally on human rights?" said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch while Tin Maung Maung Than, a Burmese scholar and senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, won't be perfect, but it won't be a disaster.” [Source:James Pomfret, Reuters, October 10, 2013 |||]

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the chairmanship was a "good opportunity" for Myanmar to build on its socio-economic progress and democratic transition. "We all agree and we're also concerned that there are still many more challenges, particularly communal violence, which they have been experiencing, in Rakhine state involving Rohingya minority groups," he said. "We have been working very hard...to encourage Myanmar authorities to have inclusive dialogue and conciliatory policies." |||

Myanmar officials insist they are ready to take the role of chairman. Hotels are sprouting in the once-secretive capital Naypyitaw, a sprawling city built from scratch just seven years ago. The 2014 ASEAN meetings include an annual East Asia summit bringing together leaders from 18 nations including China, Japan and the United States, along with an army of inquisitive journalists. "We've been preparing for this chairmanship for quite a while," Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told Reuters on the sidelines of this year's East Asia Summit in Brunei. "It will not be a struggle for us." |||

“Myanmar was first due to take ASEAN's rotating chairmanship in 2006, but was passed over amid fears Western countries would boycott meetings held there. The country was then a global byword for backwardness and tyranny, with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and the United States and European Union imposing strict economic and political sanctions. Most sanctions are now history, and after her release in 2010, Suu Kyi became a member of Myanmar's fledgling parliament. The role of ASEAN chairman is the crowning achievement for a government eager to distance itself from the bad old days. |||

“A central problem, however, could be weak infrastructure. This year's ASEAN summit in Brunei had 500 staff to handle more than 1,000 journalists - all of whom could place enormous strains on Myanmar's notoriously slow Internet. Initial fears of a dearth of hotel rooms, however, have all but vanished in a din of construction in Naypyitaw, which now has 53 hotels boasting 4,286 rooms, more than double the number needed for the current summit in Brunei.” |||

Myanmar’s Relations with Thailand

Thailand and Myanmar are separated by a 2004-kilometer border and were bitter enemies in the Middle Ages and Imperial era (See History). Today Thailand is one of the largest investors and trading partners of Myanmar. But otherwise relations between Thailand and Myanmar have been characterized by suspicion, mutual criticism and border troubles. In the past Thailand’s leaders have put some pressure on Myanmar to democratize and free Aung San Suu Kyi and now Thailand like everything country in Asia is leaping into Myanmar to get a piece of the action as Myanmar opens up and democratizes.

Thailand has traditionally put pressure on Myanmar to reform. Occasionally the border between the two counties has been closed because of ethnic fighting or crackdowns on drug smuggling. Many Burmese anti-government activists are based in Thailand. Mostly they are allowed to operate freely. But the Thai government has detained Burmese activists in Thailand who were planning to stage a demonstration at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok.

Thailand and other Asian nations forged close economic ties with Myanmar during the 1990s and 2000s when Western nations imposed sanctions on Myanmar. Issues between Thailand and Myanmar include illegal cross-border activities such as drug smuggling, harassment of minorities and Myanmar exiles, presence of Burmeese migrant workers in Thailand and the treatment of Myanmar refugees in Thailand .

Thailand’s position towards Myanmar softened in the early 2000s under Thai Prime Minister Thaksin, who tried a strategy of engagement and met with Myanmar’s leaders and attempted to appease them. In August 2006, Thaksin made a surprise visit to Myanmar. He met with Myanmar’s leader, Senior General Than Shwe, and signed a drug control agreement. Thaksin kept silent on oppression in Myanmar and supported the military regime there, giving them soft loans so they could buy satellite services from Thaksin communications company. Thaksin ‘s position made ASEAN member reluctant to but pressure on Myanmar to improve human rights and make democratic reforms. His foreign minsister was involved in shady deals with Myanmar general. During the coup period in Thailand after Thaksin was ousted in 2006 it was hard for Thailand to criticize Myanmar’s military junta as it was governed by a military junta itself. In 2008, the militray-backed government of Thailand opposed sanctions against Myanmar.

In January 2006, a new ‘friendship bridge” was opened across the Sai River between Chiang Rai in Thailand and Tachilek in Myanmar. The 90-meter-long, tw0-lane bridge eases travel between China and Southeast Asia as is only 100 kilometers from the China-Myanmar border. Officials from Myanmar and Thailand said they hoped the bridge would improve relations and boost trade in both nations. An earlier bridge across the Sai River, opened in 1967, could not be expaned to accommodate increased traffic.

In July 2012, Myanmar President Thein Sein visited Thailand for the first time on a twice-postponed trip to Bangkok and met with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The trip aimed to strengthen relations between the two neighbors and to get Thailand to invest and support infrastructure projects in Myanmar. AFP reported: “The two nations said they would set up ministerial-level contacts to address related issues. "In our talks, I reaffirmed the commitment of the Thai government to push forward with this cooperation with Myanmar in regard to the development of the Dawei deep sea port to have concrete progress," Yingluck said. The two leaders also agreed to open three new border crossings between the two countries - in Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Kanchanaburi - in addition to three existing official checkpoints. Thein Sein described the talks as "friendly" and said he had thanked Thailand for its support and "reiterated our determination to continue our reforms". [Source: AFP, July 23, 2012]

Gap Between Thailand and Myanmar

On the economic and social disparities between Myanmar and Thailand, Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “On one side, millions of Myanmar's people suffer from chronic malnutrition. On the other, Thais enjoy a much more affluent society, where people are generally so well fed that obesity among children is a big concern. Children die in Myanmar of diseases so easily preventable that most people in Thailand have never heard of them. Burma was considered one of the most promising economies in Asia during the immediate postwar years. Today, the comparison with Thailand highlights Myanmar's missed opportunities under the grip of its military government and the breadth of the country's problems. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, October 25, 2007 <=>]

“There are significant differences in the salaries of construction workers: a daily wage the equivalent of 100 baht, or about US$3, on the Myanmar side, compared with double that in Thailand. A teacher on the Myanmar side earns the equivalent of US$47.50 a month, residents say, compared with upward of US$158 in Thailand. Crossing into Myanmar means stepping back in time. Bicycle rickshaws are a major mode of public transportation on the Burmese side -- not because they are good for the environment, but because many people are too poor to be able to afford a car or a smuggled motorcycle from Thailand, which earns US$10 billion a year shipping cars and pickup trucks around the world. <=>

“In both Thailand and Myanmar, the military has been deeply involved in politics in recent decades. Thailand has had more than a dozen coups since the 1930s and, after the overthrow last year of a democratically elected government, power remains in the military's hands. The salient difference, says Sean Turnell, an expert on the Burmese economy at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, is that Thailand's leaders have allowed businesses to thrive. <=>

“During 45 years of misrule, Myanmar's generals have almost entirely dismantled the economy, he said. There are no effective property rights and contract enforcement is nonexistent. "If in other countries ruling regimes behave occasionally as mafioso in skimming a cut from prosperous business, then Burma's is more like a looter -- destroying what it can neither create nor understand," Turnell said. The economic dysfunction means there is no financial underpinning for better healthcare or more widespread distribution of medicines. <=>

“According to UNICEF, 10 out of 100 children in Myanmar die before reaching the age of five. In Thailand, two out of 100 die. A woman has a one in 75 chance of dying in childbirth in Myanmar, compared with one in 900 in Thailand. Because children in Myanmar are malnourished, 32 percent are significantly below the expected height for their age compared with 13 percent in Thailand. Cynthia Maung, a Burmese who runs a nonprofit health clinic on the Thai side of the 1,800km border, has become accustomed to detecting malnourished children. "The skin peels easily," she said. "The hair becomes brittle. The eyes look drowsy. There's muscle wasting -- you can't see the muscles, just bone and skin." “ <=>

“Terrence Smith, a US gynecologist and obstetrician at the clinic, says most of his patients are unnaturally lean. "We do ultrasounds and the transducer goes straight to the organs," he said. In one corner of Smith's ward were two tiny, malnourished newborns dropped off and abandoned by their mothers. Maung's clinic was set up to treat sick patients from Myanmar who cannot afford health care inside their country. The clinic treated about 2,000 patients in 1989 when it opened. Last year, 100,000 Myanmar people came for treatment.” <=>

Myanmar Refugees in Thailand

According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): Thailand currently hosts some 84,900 registered refugees and an estimated 62,000 unregistered asylum-seekers from Myanmar in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. Thailand has been affected by events in neighbouring Myanmar, which saw unprecedented political developments in 2011 and 2012. Negotiations between the Government of Myanmar and ethnic armed groups have resulted in a series of ceasefire agreements that have brought relative calm to south-eastern Myanmar. The cessation of hostilities is significant for Myanmar refugees in Thailand: the vast majority of those registered and living in the Thai camps originate from areas in Myanmar where ceasefires have been announced. While the peace is fragile, it has increased the prospects for voluntary returns to Myanmar. [Source: 2013 UNHCR country operations profile - Thailand]

The vast majority of the refugees are ethnic Karens who began arriving in 1984 when the Burmese military launched an offensive against the Karen National Union, a Karen political party that evolved into a militant group. Myanmar refugees in Thailand also include Karens, Karenis, Shans, and some students and pro-democracy activists

Some of the Karen refugees have malaria and lack adequate food and shelter. The Thai authorities want them to leave. In July 2003, the United Nations agreed to a Thai plan to build a border camp for 1,500 Burmese deemed unable to return home to Myanmar because they had been threatened with violence. Thai troops have forced Karen refugees to return to Myanmar. In February 2004, Thailand began deporting Burmese refugees to Myanmar in an effort to create “a favorable environment” for Thai business in Myanmar, according to a U.S. human group, which worried that the refugees would be persecuted if the returned.

See Refugees, Karen.

See Thailand, See Foreign Workers, Migrants. Sex Trade Under Thailand

Drugs and Smuggling Between Myanmar and Thailand

Describing the smuggling between Thailand and Myanmar, Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “The Moei River separating Myanmar from Thailand is a modest-sized waterway, wide enough to make someone think twice before swimming to the other side, but sufficiently narrow to allow smugglers to pile motorcycles, furniture and food onto rubber rafts and paddle across, as they do almost every night. Because of the smuggling along this border, Myawadi is prosperous by Myanmar's standards. Some of the buildings resemble the multi-story apartments on the Thai side. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, October 25, 2007]

See Drugs

Thailand, Myanmar, Insurgents and Border Skirmishes

The Myanmar junta has accused Thailand or arming Thailand-based Karen insurgents fighting the Myanmar government and the Thais have accused Myanmar of supporting the 20,000-member Wa army, which ties up the Thai Army in northern Thailand and floods Thailand with drugs.

One particularly sensitive issue is fighting between the Myanmar government and Karen insurgents near Thailand’s western border with Myanmar. Whenever the Myanmar military launches an offensive against the insurgents it sends Karen refugees pouring into Thailand. Occasionally mortars fired by the Myanmar army at Karen insurgents land in Thailand. In February 2001, there was fighting between Thailand and Myanmar. The Thai border town of Mae Sai was hit by mortars fired from Myanmar. Two women were killed and nine other people were injured. The Thai government closed the border and sent reinforcement troops to the area.

Fighting between Shan rebels and Myanmar has also spilled into Thailand, with the Myanmar government accusing the Thais of assisting the rebels. At one point Myanmar forces occupied a hill in Thai territory. Around 20 Myanmar soldiers were killed and 100 were injured in the heavy artillery assault by Thai forces to reclaim the hill. The Shan insurgency has largely dissolved but some its fighters are believed to have been absorbed into the Wa army.

See Insurgencies

Thailand’s Investments and Ambitious Port Project in Myanmar

In July 2012, AFP reported: “Thailand and Myanmar pledged to press ahead with a multi-billion-dollar deep sea port project and to open new border crossings during summit talks focused on strengthening economic ties. The Dawei development on Myanmar's southern Andaman coast is a key part of the impoverished country's plans to transform its economy, giving neighbours such as Thailand an outlet to the Indian Ocean and markets to the West. But the project—led by Thai industrial giant Ital-Thai—has faced resistance from local villagers and there have been signs of funding troubles. [Source: AFP, July 23, 2012]

The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on the development of a special economic zone for Dawei, with Thailand agreeing to provide assistance in areas including security, infrastructure and logistics.Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told reporters after talks with visiting President Thein Sein on a twice-postponed trip to Bangkok that the two nations would set up ministerial-level contacts to address related issues. "In our talks, I reaffirmed the commitment of the Thai government to push forward with this cooperation with Myanmar in regard to the development of the Dawei deep sea port to have concrete progress," Yingluck said.

The Laem Chabang deep-sea port on Thailand's Gulf Coast, which is to be connected by road to Dawei, shortening the current sea route around the Malay Peninsula. The Dawei project would include a 250-square-kilometre industrial area with a steel mill, petrochemical plant and oil refinery. The Thai developer insists all is going to plan. It is among a number of ambitious foreign-funded projects which started before the long-ruling junta handed over power in 2011 to a new quasi-civilian government whose ranks are filled with former generals. But doubts about the port development grew after Myanmar's government earlier this year blocked a 4,000-megawatt coal-fired plant that was to be built at Dawei.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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