Burmese president Thein Sein began his first official trip to Thailand on Sunday with an inspection of the Laem Chabang deep-sea port on the Gulf of Thailand, as investors in Bangkok pushed his administration to back a similar port development in Burma.
Thai plans to develop a multibillion dollar deep-sea-port in Dawei, on Burma's southern Andaman coast, have been in limbo since the project's Burmese partner Max Myanmar pulled out of the venture earlier this month and the Thein Sein government blocked a coal-fired plant to be built at the site.
The Dawei project was approved at the tail end of the Burmese military junta rule three years ago, before Thein Sein's nominally civilian administration took over in March 2011 and began implementing political and economic reforms.
Thai authorities took Thein Sein on a visit to the Laem Chabang port, about 100 kilometres (62 miles) southeast of Bangkok, on the opening day of his three-day visit to the kingdom, "hoping to inspire him into extending full political support" to the Dawei project, Thailand's Nation newspaper reported.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had said that she would discuss with Thein Sein during their talks on Monday the development of the deep-sea port and an industrial estate in Dawei and a planned transborder corridor to Thailand.
“The development of the Dawei deep-sea port and industrial zone in Myanmar [Burma] will be a major topic of discussion during the official visit of the Myanmar President,” the Thai government said in a statement prior to Thein Sein's visit.
There are plans to link Laem Chabang by road to the proposed Dawei deep seaport and industrial estate, cutting transport time between central Thailand and India's Chennai port by avoiding the Malacca Straits straddling Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, Thai officials have said.
Italian-Thai Development Pcl ITD.BK, Thailand's largest construction firm, which won a 60-year concession to build and operate the port and industrial estate in Dawei, is in talks with new investors to replace Max Myanmar Group in the project, Reuters news agency reported earlier this month.
"Four or five local investors in Myanmar have shown interest in investing in Dawei after Max Myanmar's withdrawal. Italian-Thai is in talks with them," Somchet Thinaphong, managing director of Dawei Development Corp, was quoted saying.
Italian-Thai was also seeking loans from Japanese investors to help finance the project.
'Milestone' in bilateral ties
Thein Sein's first trip to Thailand since taking power marks "a significant milestone" in bilateral relations, particularly in Bangkok's support for Burma's economic reform and development efforts, the Thai foreign ministry said.
Thailand is Burma's second-largest trade partner after China.
Human rights groups have urged Thailand and other nations to be cautious in pushing investments into Burma, whose human rights record remains a concern.
"Prime Minister Yingluck should be cautious about encouraging more Thai investment in the absence of a functioning human rights safeguards and legal framework in Burma," U.S.based Human Rights Watch said.
In the construction and maintenance of large-scale infrastructure projects, the Burmese military has a long record of carrying out serious violations, including forced relocations of civilians and systematic use of forced labor, it said.
In addition, there are credible reports of serious abuses by Burmese state security forces in various other sectors, such as mining, logging, and industrial agricultural farming, where some projects receive foreign investment, including from Thailand, the group said.
The Thai government was also asked to develop and implement legally binding safeguards that comport with international human rights standards with regard to the business activities of Thai companies in Burma, such as the Dawei deep sea port project.
“The opening of Burma’s economy should not be construed by Thai business as an excuse to aid and abet rights abuses by local partners,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said.
“Prime Minister Yingluck should insist that Thai companies demonstrate the best of Thailand, not the worst.”
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.