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(October 4, 2018) Thailand and Myanmar are natural allies - Kavi Chongkittavorn

At their 9th annual joint bilateral meeting in Nay Pyi Taw in August, both countries proclaimed from now on they are "natural strategic partners". It was the right time, coming on the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations being established. The new status is unique as it highlights and recognises the strategic value of their shared traditions, culture, religion and way of life.

At present, Thailand and Myanmar decided their priorities are development to improve the lives of the people in the two countries, especially those who live in border areas. Both countries believe that by working together with "natural feeling from the heart" and without any pretensions, they will be able to tackle any future challenges that may arise.

After all, only 93 kilometres of the porous border of 2,400 kilometres between them have been demarcated. Only sustained mutual trust can guarantee such a noble outcome. To do so, there will be frequent meetings among officials from both sides at all level as well as between the Thai governors and chief ministers of bordering provinces.

Three weeks after upgrading their ties, the first challenge came unexpectedly. On Sept 10, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand scheduled a panel discussion, "Will Myanmar's Generals Ever Face Justice for International Crimes?" Given the new level of sensitivity and commitment following the latest bilateral meeting in August, the Thai authorities decided at the last minute to ban the event as its title was thought to be too provocative. The police action attracted strong criticism. It was the first time that a programme on the Rohingya at the FCCT was banned, a sign that Myanmar-Thai relations are no longer business as usual. Under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the police have banned altogether six events at the FCCT.

The other long-term challenge will be developments in Rakhine State, which Thailand must handle on three different levels -- bilaterally, regionally and internally. Today, the international community continues to pressure Myanmar over the repatriation and resettlement of Rohingya refugees. The size and complexity of the Rakhine crisis has stymied the various efforts and initiatives to resolve the problem. Lack of trust and guarantees of safety and shelter, as well as delays in the verification process, have made matters worse.

As a neighbouring country, Thailand is taking small steps at a time by sharing some basic principles and practices in economic self-sufficiency with Myanmar. This kind of exchange has been going on for years, but it was not until recently that both countries decided to develop "model villages" in Rakhine based on self-sufficiency economic principles.

Last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited to Thailand two prominent figures in economic development in Myanmar and Rakhine -- U Aung Tun Thet, chief coordinator of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, and U Nyi Pu, chief minister of Rakhine. They visited various centres of knowledge about the practice of economic self-sufficiency.

U Aung Tun Thet, who is Myanmar's most well-known economist and a noted former UN official, told the author on Friday that they were impressed with the results of the approach. He said this policy would be effective in Myanmar, especially its ethnic areas. "The model promotes dignified living, tolerance, inclusiveness and morality," he said.

U Aung Tun Thet said he learned about the holistic aspect of economic self-sufficiency long before this visit. He lived in Bangkok when his father was serving in Bangkok in 1952. He said the experience and knowledge he gained, and the networking he did, have been crucial for the model villages being set up in ethnic areas. Apart from one in Rakhine, which the two governments agreed earlier, he mentioned Mon State, Kayin State and Tanintharyi Region. He said these villages will help in the future to facilitate the safe, dignified and sustainable return of displaced persons to their places of origin.

With his long experience in economic planning and implementation, he said he knew exactly what would be useful for his country's development and that in the near future there will be lots of exchanges between the two countries on development in Myanmar and Rakhine.

For now, the Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA) is providing Myanmar officials and young people with training and scholarships at various levels. TICA is working with Myanmar to implement the Thailand-Myanmar Three-Year Development Cooperation Framework 2019-2021.

Beyond Rakhine, in developing local infrastructure projects inside Myanmar, Thailand has made much headway. First, it provided aid for the road between Myawaddy and Kawkareik, which is now considered one of Myanmar's best roads. To build on this success, Thailand is working with Myanmar to upgrade the strategic trade road between Eindu and Thaton, a crucial part of the East-West Economic Corridor. In addition, the second friendship bridge at Mae Sot-Myawaddy will soon open to expand border trade and people-to-people contact. The bridge was built with Thailand's aid as well. The mammoth task of realising the Dawei Special Economic Zone continues but the progress has been slow, as both sides are focusing on the improvement of the two-lane road linking the zone to Kanchanaburi province.

On the broad issue of migrant workers, Thailand's upgrade on the US Trafficking in Persons Report this year to Tier 2 Watch List served as a barometer of years of hard work as well as improvements in the livelihoods of millions of Myanmar migrant workers. Over 2.3 million have been registered and protected under Thai labour law. Further improvements of their rights are crucial.

Another long-standing issue is the voluntary return of Myanmar refugees. After a second batch of 93 displaced persons was returned in May of this year, both countries are planning for a third batch to be sent back later this month. Since 1984, Thailand has provided shelter and other aid to an estimated 100,000 displaced people from Myanmar living in nine temporary shelters in the provinces of Mae Hong Son, Tak, Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi.

As the Asean chair next year, Thailand will be under the microscope over its engagement with Myanmar, so it is incumbent on the Thai side to prepare itself as well as its Asean colleagues to work together to overcome the formidable challenges ahead.