Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – Thailand’s new prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, will pay her first official visit to Burma “in the near future,” the Burmese state-run New Light of Myanmar reported on Sunday.
Her first visit to Burma since taking office is at the invitation of Burma’s President Thein Sein, the paper reported. Yingluck Shinawatra was elected prime minister by Parliament on August 5.
The visit is tipped to be an effort to strengthen bilateral relations and economic trade between the neighbouring countries.
Thailand remains Burma’s second largest foreign investor, with Chinese investment topping the list at more than US$ 13 billion in the 2010/11 fiscal year, and Thailand with US$ 2.49 billion, according to figures released by Burma’s Ministry of National Planning and Development in June this year.
Thailand’s dependence on Burma for energy, in particular natural gas, has caused Thailand to develop a closer economic relationship with the Burmese government in recent years.
According to the British government’s UK Trade and Investment office (UKTI), Thailand is now likely to develop an even closer relationship with its investment-hungry neighbour because of the March earthquake that hit Japan.
Prior to the earthquake and the ensuing damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Thailand had planned to install its own nuclear power plants by 2020, according to UKTI. Greater reliance on natural gas is now expected following the nuclear crisis in Japan.
In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency recently said Thailand was not ready to pursue its 20-year Power Development Plan from 2010-30 due to a lack of proper laws and lack of adherence to international protocols. Since this development, Thailand’s most obvious energy choice is to lean on natural gas for its energy security, said UKTI.
Thai corporate interests in Burma have also complicated Thailand’s commitment to human rights in regard to Burma, Kraisak Choonhavan, the chairman of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, told Mizzima in July. He said the new Thai government would give first priority to the welfare of Thai business interests, and their policies would not strongly favour the Burmese people.
“This government is very dangerous to Burma, because it listens to corporate interests and sometimes they refuse to even listen to news and information, on how to cooperate with local people in Burma, like building a dam on the Salween River,” Kraisak said. “The Yadana pipe line to Thailand displaced a lot of people in Burma. Thaksin, in the last government, wanted to build the seaport project in Dawei. This new government will be the same as Thaksin’s.” Observers expect Yingluck to pursue the same line as her elder brother and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s new government has not commented on a planned repatriation of tens of thousands of refugees living on Thailand’s border, an issue that was brought to the fore by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva’s government.
While human rights issues in Burma may call on Thailand, as part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to step up to the bar and take a harder approach to Burma, UKTI said, “We suspect economic or energy-security interests may take the edge off any influencing work which could offend this neighbour.”
Energy observers note that for more than a decade, Thailand has tried to diversify away from natural gas to imported coal and nuclear energy. Gas now makes up 72 per cent of the fuel for the country’s total electricity generation, according to a recent article in the Chiang Rai Times.
Thailand in May decided to delay a planned 5,000-megawatt nuclear programme by another three years to 2023 after the devastating earthquake in Japan.
Thailand started a nuclear project in 1966. It was approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1970. The project was shelved in 1978 after natural gas was found in the Gulf of Thailand.