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Entwined Past and Shared Future: Thai-Myanmar Relations in a Regional Perspective

“Entwined Past and Shared Future: Thai-Myanmar Relations in a Regional Perspective”

Monday 20thApril 2015 at 09.00a.m. – 12.15p.m.

 

The Chumbhot-Pantip Conference Room, 4th Floor Prajadhipok-Rambhaibarni Building

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

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 Welcome Remarks

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana

Dean, Faculty of Political Science

Chulalongkorn University

 

Opening Remarks

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Director,

Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS Thailand) 

 

U Nyunt Maung Shein

Chairman,

Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies

(Myanmar ISIS)

 

Public Session

H.E. Mr. Kasit Piromya

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Thailand 

 

U Khin Maung Lynn

Joint Secretary,

Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies 

 

Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt

Senior Fellow,

Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies 

 

Dr. Narong Pomlaktong

Neighboring Countries Development Cooperation Agency 

 

Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn

Senior Fellow

Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS Thailand)

    

Moderator: Ms. Gwen Robinson

Senior Asia Editor, Nikkei Asian Review, and

     Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand

 

 

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Power Point Presentations

Dawei SEZ Overview (Dr. Narong Pomlaktong): goo.gl/nEnBB0

Thai-Myanmar ties: NMMIAs (Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn): goo.gl/kNhcS5

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Videos: Entwined Past and Shared Future: Thai-Myanmar Relations in a Regional Perspective

Entwined Past and Shared Future: Thai-Myanmar Relations in a Regional Perspective 1/2: www.youtube.com/watch

Entwined Past and Shared Future: Thai-Myanmar Relations in a Regional Perspective 2/2: www.youtube.com/watch

 

If you wish more detailed information concerning this seminar please click 
http://www.facebook.com/ISISThailand

 

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Opening Remarks: U Nyunt Maung Shein

Both Thailand and Myanmar are currently at a critical juncture at a time when they are both attempting to adjust to the changing strategic and political landscape regionally and globally. There are also ongoing boundary and border issues occurring between the two countries. Being neighbours, Myanmar and Thailand have a long history, beginning in the era of ancient Kings and continuing now to the era of modern nation-states. There have been periods of acrimony and competition, but the relationship has been mostly positive and fruitful. Looking forward to the future, both countries share similar aspirations and hopes for enhanced relations.

 

The Dawei deep-sea port project is an example of the future of the relationship and shows the potential of the two countries’ cooperation. Both governments are trying to encourage Japanese investment into the project, which is expected to cost over 10 billion USD. While there is already Japanese interest, another partner for the project could potentially be India. The Trilateral Highway Project between India, Thailand and Myanmar is another potential area of cooperation. Thailand and Myanmar can interconnect Northeast India with ASEAN and East Asia.

 

Myanmar, along with Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, is trying to catch up with the ASEAN original six. Since its reforms in the past few years, the GDP of Myanmar has reached annual growth of around 7%. If Myanmar could sustain such a level of growth, it could become a Middle Income Country by the year 2030, according to the ADB. In the future, Myanmar also aspires to be one of the countries which could provide a leading role in the regional grouping. Towards the end of the year, Myanmar will be holding a General Election, and the whole world will be paying close attention to its outcome.  Myanmar people also expect the government to undertake more reform and improve their living conditions. 

 

Moderator: Will Thailand and Myanmar be able to navigate the complex changing regional and global dynamics at a time when they are struggling with their own domestic issues? There are critical elections coming up in Myanmar, and the contested new Constitution and discussions of elections in Thailand.      

 

Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt

The ancient history between Thailand and Myanmar was not always so rosy. The relationship was characterised by animosity and clashes, especially between the ruling Kings. Citizens during that period suffered immensely due to the conflict. People in Myanmar still show remorse for having destroyed the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya in the last war against Siam in 1867. But it is unproductive, improper and irrelevant to bring the past animosities into the 21st Century. Both countries should leave those bad feelings behind and look forward constructively to a shared future together.

 

Today, more Thais are visiting Myanmar, particularly on pilgrimage tours to visit famous shrines and Buddhist temples, than ever before. With more travellers, open borders and flights, more people-to-people links are being established. Similar religious practises and culture play an important role in improving the relationships, and as such, Thais are warmly welcomed with open hearts by the people of Myanmar. With the prospect of reciprocal easing of visa restrictions in the future, there is sure to be more exchanges between people and business communities which will help bilateral trade to continue to grow. Both governments need to be encouraged to ease visa restrictions as soon as possible. Myanmar now enjoys visa-free travel in six ASEAN member countries, but not yet with Thailand, Singapore or Malaysia as these countries have concerns about illegal migration. However, it is well known that Myanmar workers are hard-working, easy to train and productive, so they will be useful for foreign employers if they are able to emigrate legally through proper channels.

 

Just as older Thai and Myanmar people share similar religious practises, youths also have similar cultural practises. The recent visit by a renowned Thai singer to Yangon under the “Fun and Friendship Exchange Programme” was a shining example of the shared culture and close affiliation among the two countries’ young people. This friendship and closeness needs to be channelled to other fields and projects in health, education, sports and the anti-narcotics drive, among others. Cross-border youth engagement is also important in the education sectors of both countries, particularly at the University level. There should be more exchanges of scholars from both countries to learn language and culture.

                         

Myanmar is eager to cooperate with Thailand on public health issues and infectious disease control, as well as drug and human trafficking, and illegal logging across their long and porous border. Past experiences have shown that these issues cannot be tackled effectively without genuine, mutual trust and true friendship between the peoples, law enforcement officers, responsible authorities and governments on both sides of the border.

 

At the government level, the relationship is excellent, with high-level exchanges being planned on both sides. The two ongoing poverty alleviation projects under the Mae Fah Luang Foundation and under the Royal Patronage of Thailand are enjoying success. More projects such as this are required on border areas to bring about peace, rural development and prosperity to the poor.

 

Myanmar and Thailand are currently struggling to establish viable and sustainable democratic systems, peculiar to their respective circumstances, through ‘military midwives.’ Hopefully these infant democracies will not be destroyed by disunity among citizens and the elites.

 

Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt

Thailand and Myanmar, two close neighbours with identical cultures and similar ethnic backgrounds are entwined not just in the past, but also into the future. In the past, the relations can be described as being ‘Sweet-and-Sour’ at different periods, to use a Chinese dish as an analogy. This is not unique to Thailand and Myanmar, as other countries have gone through periods of hostility and friendliness; England and France, Germany and Russia, and Japan and China have had sweet-and-sour relations. This is to be expected, just as members of the same family quarrel.

 

During the past five decades of Myanmar’s political isolation, its only contact with the outside world was through Thais. Thailand was also the first country to invite Myanmar to join ASEAN, and was willing to create an avenue for Myanmar to engage with the West through BIMSTEC. Myanmar people will not forget this.

                      

For successful international relations, cooperation and coordination is essential. In English this is reflected in a saying, “No man is an island.” In Buddhism there is a similar saying, “No Buddha is enlightened without integrating with the surrounding environment.” Two neighbours should work together with a new mindset for a new generation. This is true not just for Thailand and Myanmar, but also true of all neighbouring countries. The new generation means new leadership. Now in ASEAN many of the leaders are old or middle aged, but they will have to give way to the next generation of leaders.

 

Moderator: How will the rise of supra-regional bodies and agreements such as the AIIB and AEC will impact on Thailand and Myanmar and their dynamic? What is the ‘China Factor’ for both countries? 

 

U Nyunt Maung Shein

The most contentious issue in the Myanmar-Thailand relationship is that of migrant labour. The migrant labour from Myanmar mainly goes to three countries: Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Out of these three countries there are more than 3 million Myanmar migrant workers, some of which are documented but many are undocumented. There have been some difficulties in managing these labourers.  Since Myanmar and Thailand share a long but porous land border, there are a great deal of migrant workers who have gone undocumented and undetected in Thailand. However, even the legal migrant workers receive appalling treatment from their Thai employers. There is now a Ministry of Labour attaché office at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok which tries to address the needs of these labourers, but due to the number of people coming to work in Thailand it is hard for the embassy to keep up with the demand and tackle the issues effectively.

 

Myanmar is still very poor. 70% of the population still lives in the countryside and according to UN estimates, 26% or the rural population are below the poverty line. President Thein Sein’s government has initiated a national-level plan of action to eradicate this poverty in the country. They had originally targeted to half the figure of 26% by this year, but unfortunately poverty still persists and the target may be missed.

 

The other major issue for both countries is human trafficking. There have been reports about trafficking gangs who send small children and young women from Myanmar to Thailand, Bangkok in particular, to become beggars in the streets or to work in the sex industry. Both countries should try to supress the syndicates who engage in human trafficking activities.

 

The boundaries between Thailand and Myanmar is not particularly well defined, particularly for Myanmar which has inherited documentation from British last updated in the late 19th Century. Since Myanmar is engaged in a national peace and reconciliation process and most armed ethnic groups have come into the legal fold, the border is now rather stable and peaceful. In the future both countries should look into demarcating the border which would allow improved management and more efficient cross-border travel and business. Myanmar has demarcated its borders with Bangladesh, India, China and Laos with official agreements and treaties. Now, Thailand is the only remaining country with whom Myanmar does not have an agreement or treaty. The only portion which has been settled is in Chiang Rai province, but it only consists of 50kms in a border well over 2,000kms. As for management of the border, there is a mechanism known as the Regional Border Committee, but these are headed by the military commanders of the two countries. We should look into establishing mechanisms for civilian management of the border, as Myanmar has with China and Laos.

 

Myanmar is one of the 57 founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This is also related to the new Chinese initiative of the New Maritime Silk Road, which has received support from the Myanmar government. We must also take into account some of the concerns expressed by all countries regarding this initiative; Vietnam and India have great concerns that the New Maritime Silk Road will drive China’s “Two-Ocean” strategy policy which will assist China’s naval projection capabilities. While China is pushing this New Silk Road as a win-win proposition for the countries along its route in terms of economic and cultural gains, there are some countries that have some reservations and concerns.

 

Since the military government took over in 1988, there has been suppression of democratic movement in Myanmar. The West imposed very strong sanctions on Myanmar, so it was forced to turn to China, which was willing to provide economic, military and diplomatic support. Today, Chinese strategic interest in Myanmar is concentrated on three main aspects; 1) a stable border, 2) energy and resource procurement. The Chinese government have built a dam in the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River, but there has been great public outcry. In the Northeast there was also an incident where a Myanmar dropped a bomb on Chinese territory. This has caused great tension in the relationship. 3) To gain access to the sea. The Yunnan Province is one of China’s least developed regions, so a route to the sea through Myanmar could benefit its exports.

 

Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn

Thai-Myanmar relations have been abnormal for a long time, stuck in an old narrative for generations, and many conceptions in both countries still remain stuck in the past. For example, in Thai popular culture, Myanmar is still depicted as the worst enemy or as a weak subservient colony. In Myanmar, there is still a sense of superiority predicated on ancient military success in the region. However, the relations have the potential for an entirely new and unprecedented character. Both countries should stop looking at each other as the worst enemy, but as best friends. At the government, Track-II and people-to-people levels, both countries must strive to re-define the relationship.

 

In the past few years there has been a growing positive image of Myanmar. A lot of Thai tourists travel to see Shwedagon and they long to visit Burma to fulfil their nostalgic desire for “Good Ol’ Siam.” This improving image has not proliferated to the media, but hopefully Myanmar starts to be seen in a more positive light in Thailand. People-to-people and cultural ties between Myanmar and Thailand are growing stronger; in Thailand, Myanmar 3-in-1 tea in particular has become very popular, while Thai products such as ‘Mama’ instant noodles, whitening cream and herbal shampoos are growing in popularity in Myanmar.

 

The ongoing peace process in Myanmar has the most positive impact on Thai-Myanmar relations. Since Myanmar’s independence, the issue of minorities living along the Thai border has been the key “cancerous” problem in the relationship. From now on, Thai-Myanmar relations will prosper due to the prospect of the peace process. Less pressure and suspicion will be placed on Thailand, and indeed, Thailand itself may be part of the peace process (which in itself is commendable).

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