By Ron Corben
Political analysts say Thailand and Burma are looking to rebuild business relations after a two-day visit by Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
The visit included moves to expand business and economic ties, but what drew the most attention was a half-hour meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. The meeting was the Burmese opposition leader’s first with a head of government since her release from house arrest last year.
Aung San Suu Kyi is preparing to stand as a candidate in a by-election in early 2012. A Thai government spokeswoman said Yingluck had offered Aung San Suu Kyi her support in the by-election.
Earlier, in a meeting with Burma’s President Thein Sein, Yingluck expressed support for Burma’s efforts to reconcile with the country’s ethnic communities. She also called for an expansion of business ties.
A political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, says the meeting between Yingluck and Aung San Suu Kyi would also boost the Thai Prime Minister’s political credentials in Thailand.
Thitinan said favorable ties with Burma are vital for Thailand.
“It is the most important country for Thailand in terms of trade, investment, labor and Thai economic and Thai energy dependence on Burma/Myanmar gas and supply in the coming years. Right now we already have more than 20 percent of our natural gas in Thailand being imported from Myanmar/ Burma,” Thitinan said.
In Thailand, media coverage of the visit was overshadowed by comments from Yingluck’s brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who said he had visited Burma last week “to help smooth the way for his sister.”
Thaksin was known for having a close relationship with Burma’s former military government and remains a deeply divisive figure in Thailand.
Thailand, together with China and Singapore are major investors in Burma.
International sanctions have limited foreign investment in Burma due to the government’s human-rights record. But further economic and political reforms are expected, which could ease sanctions and lead to more investment.
But the secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, Tate Naing, warns those benefits may not be equally distributed.
He says further economic reforms may benefit business people closely aligned with the government and lead to land confiscation.
One of the biggest companies working in Burma is the Thai contractor, Italian Thai Development, which is building an estimated $4-billion deep sea port and industrial zone at the Dawei Port in Southern Burma.
Thailand’s oil and gas producer, PTT Exploration and Production, has a third gas field expected to come on line in 2013.