Suu Kyi to talk trade with Thai junta this week

Myanmar, now governed by Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, is emerging from half a century of military rule.
Myanmar, now governed by Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, is emerging from half a century of military rule.

Myanmar leader's visit to Thailand comes at a time of reversal of fortunes for the South-east Asian neighbours

BANGKOK • Ms Aung San Suu Kyi leaves democratically led Myanmar this week for military-ruled Thailand on an official visit that highlights the changing fortunes of the South-east Asian neighbours.

Myanmar, now governed by Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) after elections last year, is emerging from half a century of military rule, while Thailand - Myanmar's second-largest trading partner after China, with total trade last year valued at US$8.1 billion (S$10.8 billion) - is struggling to find a path back to civilian rule after the army seized power more than two years ago.

"The state visit will bring into relief an interesting reversal of political circumstances between the neighbouring countries, but will be largely pragmatic in tone," said Mr Herve Lemahieu, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

He said that he expects talks to focus on trade, investment and migrant labour.

After decades of watching Thailand develop while it languished in isolation, Myanmar is now projected to have the fastest economic growth in South-east Asia this year at 8.4 per cent, while Thailand is forecast to have some of the slowest growth, at 3 per cent, as it deals with the fallout of military rule and struggles to avoid the middle-income trap.

Investors have taken note, with foreign direct investment in Myanmar surging to a record US$9.4 billion in the fiscal year ended March, while Thailand saw an almost 70 per cent plunge in applications last year.

"Thailand has taken the recent authoritarian Myanmar model, while they (Myanmar) have taken Thailand's heyday model of the 1980s," said Mr Kobsidthi Silpa- chai, head of capital research at Kasikornbank in Bangkok.

Myanmar is attractive due to its cheap labour, largely untapped consumer market and abundant natural resources, while in Thailand, a lack of policy continuity is scaring off investors, he said.

Both countries are facing a constitutional conundrum, with Ms Suu Kyi's party campaigning to push the army out of politics and the generals in Thailand seeking voter approval in an August referendum for a draft document that would give them more power.

For now Myanmar appears to have reached a working compromise between the army and civilians, while Thailand has not.

"The Myanmar military has succeeded in co-opting Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD into a power-sharing relationship which is superficially democratic, but insulates the Myanmar military from actual civilian control," said Mr Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South-east Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.

"The Thai generals undoubtedly long for a Myanmar future."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2016, with the headline 'Suu Kyi to talk trade with Thai junta this week'. Print Edition | Subscribe