Suu Kyi: Asean must stand together

Ms Suu Kyi and General Prayut both stressed the importance of strengthening their countries' engagement of Asean yesterday. Their remarks come amid fears of widening fissures in the 10-country bloc over territorial disputes in the South China Sea bet
Ms Suu Kyi and General Prayut both stressed the importance of strengthening their countries' engagement of Asean yesterday. Their remarks come amid fears of widening fissures in the 10-country bloc over territorial disputes in the South China Sea between some Asean members and China.PHOTO: REUTERS

Three cooperation deals with Thailand inked during visit by Myanmar's de facto leader

Myanmar and Thailand plan to engage actively in Asean and Asean-centred regional frameworks even as both countries tighten economic and development cooperation, said Thai Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha yesterday during a visit by Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"We both shared the view that engagement in Asean is of great importance, especially in this rapidly evolving geopolitics of the region," said General Prayut when he addressed the media with Ms Suu Kyi, after the two countries inked three cooperation deals.

Myanmar state counsellor Suu Kyi said: "If Asean does not stand together, it's not just our region that will suffer. It's the whole world.

"We have to prove that countries which are different can join together in amity, and in tolerance and in trust, to take our world forward."

The Asean community has "achieved much" despite being "relatively young", she added.

Both leaders' remarks come amid fears of widening fissures in the 10-country bloc over territorial disputes in the South China Sea between some Asean members and China. With the rising threat of maritime confrontations causing uncertainty in the region, some Asean members are pushing for the bloc to take a common stand, while others are reluctant to do so.

Ms Suu Kyi said her country - which is transitioning from half a century of military rule - is trying its best to keep up with the region and not be "a burden".

"Our people want to work... They don't want charity," she said on the second day of her three-day trip to Thailand.

Ms Suu Kyi is Myanmar's Foreign Minister and also holds the post of state counsellor. Her National League for Democracy party swept to power in last November's elections but has to share power with the military, which is entitled to a quarter of the seats in Parliament, under the Constitution.

Earlier yesterday, she met about 300 Thai and Myanmar students and spoke to them about the importance of education as well as people-to-people relations to build regional understanding.

A scheduled trip to a refugee camp was taken off her itinerary. Officials attributed the decision to bad weather.

About 100,000 people from Myanmar, largely displaced by hostilities between its military and ethnic armed groups, are still living in border camps in Thailand. Ms Suu Kyi said she wanted them to return, but a lot of work needed to be done first to create homes, schools and jobs.

Thailand and Myanmar yesterday signed three deals to improve conditions for migrant labour as well as aid cross-border connectivity.

There are about 1.4 million registered Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand. If undocumented migrants are included, the number of workers could be as high as three or four million. Most of them earn basic wages in construction, manufacturing, seafood and the service sectors.

Under current rules, Myanmar workers need to return home for three years after working in Thailand for four years, before seeking employment again. A deal signed yesterday would reduce this interim period to only 30 days.

While appreciative of Thailand's pledge to look after the welfare of its workers, Ms Suu Kyi said Myanmar is also responsible for its people in Thailand. "We will never disown them, we will never neglect them," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'Suu Kyi: Asean must stand together'. Print Edition | Subscribe