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Neighbours heading in opposite directions

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The following article was published in The Nation, Bangkok’s English language newspaper at the start of a visit to Thailand by Meg.


The dramatic events in Thailand and Burma over the last 15 months have been closely watched around the world. Political developments in these neighbours appeared to be on a parallel route but in fact have diverged, with Thailand embracing democracy and Burma bloodily resisting change. As the Foreign Office Minister responsible for South-East Asia I have followed the twists and turns closely.


Thailand has seen the military hand power back to the people, but Burma has experienced a murderous crackdown on those who aspire to basic political rights and freedoms. Monks in Thailand have freely protested outside Parliament, but their brothers in Rangoon have been shot, beaten and imprisoned for doing the same.


The political and economic paths Thailand and Burma have taken over the last 30 years are revealing. Despite the setback from the Asian financial crisis in the late 90s, Thailand has made progress in economic development, with a growth averaging 5.6% between 2002 and 2006. Over the last 3 decades, the Thai government has reduced poverty and extending coverage of social services.  In the health sector, Thailand is recognised internationally for its progressive and effective response to HIV/AIDS.


Despite difficulties and occasional reverses a great deal of positive progress has been made since the military governments of the 1970 and 80’s. The coup was a shock to Thailand’s friends in the international community; we thought a prosperous, democratic country had confined the military to barracks. But democracy has now been restored and the future looks brighter than it did 15 months ago. Thailand also plays a central and constructive role in the region, primarily through the Association of South East-Asian Nations (ASEAN), which it will be chairing from July.   


The contrast with neighbouring Burma is stark. Burma’s long-suffering people continue to wait for freedom and economic development after 46 years of military rule. The country embarrasses its fellow ASEAN members and holds back the development of an effective regional player able to take its full part in world affairs.


Thailand’s per capita GNP has risen almost $3,000 in 30 years whilst Burma has seen a rise of only $600 over the same period. Poor governance and unresolved conflicts have brought the country to its knees - Thai citizens live on average almost 10 years longer than their neighbours. A Burmese child is five times more likely to die in infancy than a Thai child. It is unacceptable that so many Burmese people are trying to live ordinary lives in extraordinary conditions.  It is deeply unjust.


Some countries in the region might want to ignore the situation in Burma and forge ahead with their own development.  But that is not an option for Thailand. Drug trafficking and the spread of disease  pose serious challenges to Thailand’s development and stability. Two million economic migrants live in Thailand, with more refugees fleeing the Burmese military. Until there is real change in Burma, these refugees will remain on Thailand’s borders a heavy burden. There is an alternative a prosperous, stable and free Burma could be a formidable trading partner and an exporter of economic wealth rather than social, economic and political problems.


The setting of dates for a referendum and elections in Burma is likely to widen rather than bridge Burma’s many divides. Steps have to be taken to give the opposition and ethnic nationalities a voice, and to release the many political prisoners.


Some argue that change will lead to instability; they ignore the extent to which the situation in Burma is already deteriorating. In the absence of political progress, which in turn will help underpin economic recovery, the situation in Burma is likely to get worse and more brutal. The cost to its neighbours will substantially increase.


The international community is ready to help Burma. The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has made clear the UK would support Burma with aid and other developmental support provided that there is a process of genuine political change and significant progress with reconciliation and democracy. But Burma has to show the world that it is capable of change and start building a more stable and prosperous future - the kind of stability and prosperity the people of Thailand are enjoying.


I’m delighted to find my Thai interlocutors engaged in this hugely important issue.  I’m keen to work with them to help Burma take the necessary steps toward a democratic and economically productive future. Thailand, as a key country in the region, has an important role in this process. 

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