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Thai PM Re-evaluating Relations with Burma on One-Day Visit

  • Roger Wilkison

Thailand's military-appointed prime minister is making his first official visit to Burma. From Bangkok, Roger Wilkison reports Thai officials say their country's relationship with Burma is expected to change in style though not in substance.

Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has visited eight of his country's nine partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, since he took office last month following a military coup that deposed his twice-elected predecessor Thaksin Shinawatra.

Analysts in Bangkok say that, by leaving the one-day visit to Burma for last, the new Thai government wants to show that it will keep its distance from Burma's military rulers without allowing the relationship to deteriorate.

They say Mr. Surayud wants to strike a balance between Thailand's national interest and the growing clamor by the international community for Burma to stop violating human rights.

Mr. Thaksin, a multi-millionaire businessman turned politician, cultivated a cozy commercial relationship with Burma, marked by a series of controversial investments in Burmese telecommunications, hydropower and gas projects.

Thailand is highly dependent on resource-rich Burma for the supply of natural gas, and Burma benefits considerably from the revenue from such exports.

Mr. Thaksin's critics accused him of putting business ties ahead of human rights in dealing with the generals who, under one guise or another, have ruled Burma since 1962.

The Thai prime minister recently told foreign correspondents in Bangkok that his government will maintain commitments to Burma that were made by Mr. Thaksin as long as they are above board and transparent.

He says he told his Burmese counterpart at a recent ASEAN-China summit that the Thai and Burmese governments are both products of military coups, but that there is one important difference between them,

"For Thailand, we have a timeline to draft our new constitution and move on the path to democracy. But for the Burmese, we do not see any indications on the timeline yet," he said.

The Thai junta has promised to hold a general election next year to restore democracy. But Burma's leaders refused to hand over power to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi after her party won a landslide victory in elections in 1990. She has been under detention for most of the time since then.

Though ASEAN nations observe the principle of non-interference in each other's domestic political affairs, they have made some efforts to cajole Burma into being more democratic and less repressive, but without success.

Thai officials say they still prefer a policy of constructive engagement with Burma rather than the sanctions adopted by the United States and the European Union, a policy that, in the Thai view pushes Burma into the arms of its energy-hungry neighbor - China.

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