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Thai-Burmese Relations Thaw - 2002-01-09


Thailand and Burma ended nearly two years of icy relations by holding the first meeting of their joint commission since 1999. The meeting is focusing on a number of cross-border issues, including drug trafficking, illegal immigrants and trade.

Delegates to the Thai-Burma joint commission Wednesday officially set aside a period of mutual suspicion and pledged to bolster cooperation in several areas.

The head of the Thai delegation, Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, says the two countries were entering a new chapter in their relations. The head of the Burmese delegation, Foreign Minister Win Aung, highlighted the rapprochement by visiting Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra before the meeting.

Relations between the two neighbors soured two years ago after a series of clashes between their troops across their border, and incidents in which Burmese rebels took hostages in Thailand.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin visited Rangoon last June, pledging to improve ties.

Thai officials have expressed satisfaction over recent operations against drug traffickers who use the border area to smuggle heroin and amphetamines. The two governments have announced several major drug busts in recent months, saying they were the result of cooperation by military and intelligence units from both sides.

The Thai government also wants to repatriate thousands of Burmese working illegally in Thailand. It is pressing Burma to provide security guarantees for returnees and land for them to farm. It says Thailand is prepared to import what the returnees produce.

However, many aid organizations in Thailand are skeptical, noting that Burmese who return home often face imprisonment and forced labor.

An advisor at Bangkok's Institute of Asian Studies, Withaya Sucharithanarugse, said this week's meeting is not likely to resolve the problem.

"At least it paves the way for further settlement. I think the Burmese somehow have to assure us [Thailand] and the international community that their good faith in dealing with their own population, their own people, will be humanitarian at least," he said.

Professor Withaya has said the Burmese government is keen to revive cooperation to reduce the economic decline caused by international sanctions imposed because of its authoritarian policies.

"Their economy is in very bad shape judging from the value of the kyat [Burmese currency] which is very low now. They need investment and they need some sort of joint venture, particularly on mineral resources, gas pipeline, and joint fishing with the Thai companies," he said.

Although some critics advocate continued isolation of Burma's military junta, many analysts in the region say engagement is more likely to encourage the Burmese government to moderate its policies.

Others note that the decline of foreign markets for the region's export has increased competition within the region. And they say that Burma presents great potential for investors willing to work with the government in Rangoon.

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