What Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand means for ASEAN relations

What Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand means for ASEAN relations

Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi concluded a three-day official visit to Thailand with agreements on border and labour issues. The tour is evidence of the new democratically elected government’s position on its neighbouring countries and ASEAN.

On 23 June, Aung San Suu Kyi visited Thailand for the first time after her party won a landslide victory in the late November election. During her three-day visit, Aung San Suu Kyi met with the Burmese migrant workers across Thailand in Mahachai, the Thai military Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and the Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.

The purpose of Suu Kyi’s visit was primarily to address the rights of Burmese migrant workers and displaced Burmese. She ended her visit with agreements on cross border issues, protection of Burmese migrant workers, and a memorandum of understanding on labour cooperation. That being said, her tour signals Myanmar’s warming sentiment towards its neighbouring countries and the regional bloc, ASEAN.  

The primary goals of the visit were the following:

  1. Affirming relations with Thailand

Though the visit was largely dominated by discussions regarding migrant workers and displaced persons, it is nonetheless symbolic of re-establishment of relations between the two countries, which has essentially been in limbo after the new democratically elected Myanmar government rose to power. Myanmar has evolved from decades of military rule in a democratic regime, while Thailand struggles to return to civilian rules. But despite political differences, Myanmar must continue working with Thailand given that it is its second largest trading partner after China, with last year’s trade value equally US$8.1 billion.  

  1.  Addressing the rights of Burmese migrant workers and their desire to return to Myanmar

It is estimated that there could be as many as three million Myanmar nationals living in Thailand. A majority of the Burmese migrant workers work for Thailand’s giant seafood industry, which employs more than 100,000 Burmese labourers.

The industry is, however, infamous for its exploiting workers and ignoring their rights. Many Burmese migrant workers do not have legal protection and are subject to physical abuse. Burmese migrant workers and displaced individuals in Thailand have longed to return to Myanmar. However, the new democratic government is not ready to receive such a high number of returnees. Working with Thailand to improve the legal protection and rights of the Burmese people is a more feasible, short-term solution while the new administration works towards job creation.

  1. Improving relations with ASEAN

Strained relations between Myanmar and ASEAN is well-known, given its silence during Myanmar’s democratic struggle and its historical stance (though gradually shifting) in regards to shielding authoritarian regimes.  

However, the shifting of regional dynamics demands better cooperation with neighbouring countries, forcing Myanmar to gradually warm up to ASEAN. Suu Kyi chose Laos as the destination for her first official visit in May with President Htin Kyawand and his wife, and it is no surprise that her second official visit was also to an ASEAN country – Thailand.  

This is a positive sign for the regional bloc, which deepened integration at the end of 2015 by creating the ASEAN Economic Community, and Myanmar’s active participation is crucial. With liberalization being initiated by the Myanmar government, trade and investment opportunities are growing. Foreign direct investment in Myanmar reached a record high of US$9.4 billion in the fiscal year ending in March. Myanmar is set to be the fastest growing country out of the ten ASEAN countries, according to the World Bank’s figure, with a growth rate of 7.8 percent.

What does this mean for business?

While relations will certainly not change overnight, this is the start of the Myanmar government building ties with its neighbors.

The visit paves the way for further investment from Thailand and increased connectivity between the two sides. Suu Kyi agreed to support Thai-funded enterprise in Myanmar during her visit, and both sides have agreed to push forward the implementation of the Myanmar-Thailand Three Year Development Cooperation Framework (2016-18) for border areas, improving relations and economic cooperation.

Another project that will benefit from the visit is the Dawei special economic zone in Burma’s Tenasserim Division. The project received substantial investment pledges from Thailand, who has been involved in the planning and building of the Zone. The Dawei SEZ is expected to build ports, industrial zones, and power plants, and connect the region to the eastern side of Thailand.

Looking ahead

With less than a year in power, the NLD has demonstrated its pragmatism in foreign policy. Suu Kyi’s long-standing positive relations with the US and the West is well-known, but her party has not forgotten to foster a positive relationship with China, which can sometimes create a division within ASEAN. If Myanmar is able to strike a balance between ASEAN, the US and China, it would be key to Myanmar’s continued efforts to work with its neighbouring countries.

At the same time, democratic movements in other countries such as Thailand and Laos will also play a role for Myanmar when it comes to conducting business with repressive regimes. Given Suu Kyi’s stance on human right issues and pro-liberal values, it is no surprise that Thailand feared that Myanmar would turn away from the bilateral relations developed under the previous quasi-civilian government.

About Author

Qingzhen Chen

Qingzhen is a GRI Senior Analyst and a research analyst for an international information company. Her research focuses on China and the Asia Pacific. Previously she was a market researcher for PwC. She has gained regional knowledge from internships with the UNDP, China Policy, and the Royal United Services Institute. She holds a BA in Politics and East European Studies and an MSc in Security Studies from University College London.