After Aung San Suu Kyi lands in Bangkok on June 23 for a three-day visit, her first destination will not be Government House, but Mahachai, a district best known for seafood, 16km south of Bangkok. This coastal town has come to symbolize the Thailand-Myanmar relationship for decades. It has been the backdrop to media stories about human trafficking and slave labor as well as human rights abuses. During her first visit there in November 2012, Suu Kyi pledged to help the workers and urged them to fight for their rights.

Four years have since elapsed and she will now find out if the overall condition of these workers has changed for the better. The military regime under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, in power since May 2014, has adopted a zero-tolerance policy on these abuses, and has promised to improve conditions – often described as “dire” — for the workers. So far, nearly 100 culprits, including senior government officials, have been arrested and prosecuted for related crimes. New labor and fishery laws have been enacted and amended to provide better protection for the workers including improved healthcare and social welfare.

Currently, over 1.5 million migrant workers from Myanmar have been registered for work permits that allow them to change jobs and even provide the right to call for a strike against unfair treatment. Unofficially, Thailand is home to nearly 5 million both legal and illegal migrants including displaced persons from Myanmar.

During the visit of Foreign Minister Don Pramudvinai to Naypyidaw in early May, Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw thanked the Thai government for taking care of Myanmar’s migrant workers. She also pledged to tackle this challenge together with Thailand in the future. Those moves laid the groundwork for her June 23 visit. Both sides are working on a bilateral agreement between the two governments so that Myanmar workers can circumvent the middlemen and reduce the high cost of their work visas. Also in the pipeline are plans to provide training to help those who choose to work in the country develop their skills.

Thailand is the second country that Suu Kyi is visiting after Laos, chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year. She is visiting in her role as state counsellor — seen as a de facto prime minister — but also wears her foreign minister hat.

By placing such importance on Thailand, with which Myanmar shares a 2,401km border, Suu Kyi is sending a strong message of her foreign policy priorities. In April, she reiterated the importance of interpersonal, independent and non-aligned diplomacy at her first briefing with Yangon-based diplomats. In Thailand, she can turn this new foreign policy vision into practice. Besides Mahachai, she will make a half-day stopover in one of the nine border camps at Baan Thamhin in Ratchaburi province, 170km southwest of Bangkok, with nearly 7,000 displaced persons, mainly from the Karen minority. Additionally, there are approximately 103,000 more persons on the Thai side, waiting for repatriation and another 108,000 living in 24 townships across the border in Myanmar.

The likelihood that those in Thailand could return to Myanmar has never been higher due to the prospect of a peace process under Suu Kyi’s leadership. Thailand strongly supports Naypyidaw’s new peace efforts to bring an end to the 40-year civil war in Myanmar and for the country to attain national reconciliation. Indeed, her historic visit has effectively ended a near half-century of mistrust between the two neighboring countries.

Myanmar had harbored beliefs that Bangkok backed the armed ethnic minorities along the porous Thai-Burmese border who had been fighting the central government in Naypyidaw. During the cease-fire negotiations, Thailand had provided logistical support for all parties to meet both inside Myanmar and in Chiangmai since 2013. At the signing ceremony of the nation-wide cease-fire agreement last October in Naypyidaw, Bangkok was one of the international witnesses.

Helping Thailand’s image

Beyond the pressing bilateral issues, Suu Kyi’s visit is extremely significant to Thailand as it comes at a time when the country faces widespread international criticisms over alleged human rights violations and restrictions on the freedom of expression. As one of the world’s most recognized democratic leaders, Suu Kyi’s presence in Thailand will certainly help boost the image of her host. During her total of about 15 years under house arrest, Suu Kyi became an icon of democracy and a revered freedom fighter among younger Thais. Bangkok’s Thammasat University awarded her an honorary degree in 2005.

In fact, Suu Kyi is scheduled to give a lecture exclusively for Thai university students about Myanmar and its relations with ASEAN. She will become the first ASEAN leader to address Thai undergraduates, in what is being billed as her first major foreign policy speech on Myanmar and its relations with ASEAN. Despite her rocky relations with the bloc, Suu Kyi has committed to continuing all the undertakings under the ASEAN Community’s integration processes. She has pledged to attend the upcoming ASEAN ministerial meeting in late July in Vientiane. Furthermore, ASEAN is hoping that with her international status and recognition, Suu Kyi will help to promote ASEAN’s centrality in the region, its ideas and plans, and raise its international profile.

Myanmar’s future economic development will also depend on how well the country is connected with Thailand and to the rest of ASEAN. Officials on both side hope this visit will also help to clarify the status of the much-delayed mega-project to develop the Dawei deep-sea port and economic exclusive development zone that will link the East-West corridor.

For the first time since 1962, Thailand and Myanmar have a genuine prospect of developing a functional bilateral relationship that has until now eluded them. A democratic and peaceful Myanmar will provide the impetus for this new partnership. Suu Kyi’s trip this week is the start of this fresh and hopeful engagement.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Bangkok-based journalist and a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Policy at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Link: http://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints/Viewpoints/Kavi-Chongkittavorn-For-Myanmar-and-Thailand-time-to-heal-old-wounds