Tuesday, September 4, 2012

PM's Myanmar visit snag as she awaits okay from Nay Pyi Taw

A question mark hangs over Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's planned visit to Dawei, Myanmar, scheduled for this month, as Nay Pyi Taw has yet to endorse the proposed itinerary.

Yingluck was expected to highlight the mega-investment project in the port town, for which she recently signed a preliminary cooperation agreement with Myanmar President Thein Sein. The Thai government sent a team led by high-ranking officials including Foreign Ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangkatekaew and National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) secretary-general Arkom Termpitayapaisit to Dawei last week to prepare for the meeting.

Last Sunday, Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul told the media that Yingluck would visit Myanmar from September 19 to 21, after the trip was postponed from its initial schedule of September 13-15. Surapong said the earlier dates were just an initial proposal by the Thai side.

A source at Government House said Bangkok is still waiting for a response from Nay Pyi Taw. In addition, the level of the meeting has not been set. In the meantime, the prime minister is scheduled to inspect water-management systems in Krabi and Phuket, two of the Kingdom's main tourism destinations.

The prime minister's team reported that the upcoming visit to Myanmar might be led by officials at the ministerial level, not the premier, as the visit was aimed at following up on the cooperation memorandum of understanding, which was changed from a government-to-private sector to a government-to-government basis. The agreement does not specify that the prime minister should lead the visit.

A source at the Foreign Ministry speculated that Nay Pyi Taw might still lack confidence in the Thai government's stance on several issues affecting Myanmar's domestic politics. Former foreign minister Kasit Piromya was accused during the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration of interference for calling on the then government to release democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi along with all other political prisoners. Suu Kyi and many prisoners have been released since reforms began after Thein Sein became president in 2011.

Moreover, the Yingluck government appeared to support Suu Kyi (now opposition leader) during her visit to Thailand in July, when she attended the World Economic Forum as a guest of the Thai government, reportedly upsetting Thein Sein.

The Dawei project was initiated by Thai construction firm Italian-Thai Development Plc, which signed an MOU with Myanmar's Port Authority in 2008. The 10-year project will includes deep-sea ports, heavy industries and office building and commercial areas. ITD was awarded a contract, of which the first phase is worth an estimated US$8.6 billion (Bt270 billion). The entire project could be worth $58 billion or more.

After Myanmar began to open to foreign investment early this year, the mega-investment project came into the spotlight, drawing interests from several countries. ITD's contract for developing the industrial estate in the Dawei Special Economic Zone was eventually scaled down from 250 to 200 square kilometres.