HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Untangling A Cross-Border Mess
Pubdate: Fri, 06 Apr 2001
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Barry Wain
Note: From The Asian Wall Street Journal


MAE SAI, Thailand -- When Myanmar and Thailand exchanged artillery fire on 
successive days in February, they killed and wounded several dozen soldiers 
and civilians and damaged shops, houses and cars. They also brought the 
usually bustling Mae Sai, on the Thai side of the border, to a halt. Two 
months later, the streets are still practically empty, with troops almost 
outnumbering tourists and traders waiting for the good times to return.

Although the atmosphere is fairly relaxed, Thai armored vehicles are parked 
between buildings along the narrow stream marking the frontier, their 
machine guns trained on Tachilek, the twin town in Myanmar, a mere 20 
meters away. On a nearby disputed hill, the two armies confront each other 
at close quarters, their national flags fluttering at wooded outposts along 
a ridge. Over a loudspeaker at dusk, a senior monk assures Thais that they 
needn't fear another attack.

As bored shopkeepers close early, visitors are allowed to walk past the 
Thai checkpoint across the deserted "friendship bridge" that is normally 
alive with two-way pedestrian and motorized traffic. But a gate now blocks 
the other end. "I am open," says a uniformed Thai customs officer. "They 
are closed."

Historical rivals, Thailand and the former Burma continue to be driven by 
the demons that bedeviled their past. While they feud over any number of 
contemporary issues, it is what happened centuries ago that infuses every 
move with suspicion and injects a passion that stuns outsiders. The Thais 
can't forget that the Burmese captured their old capital, Ayutthaya, in 
1767 and reduced it to rubble. "You can never trust the Burmese," says a 
Thai general. "Millions of events have taught us that."

Nor is Myanmar above reaching back to recall Thai atrocities, often while 
admonishing Bangkok for doing the same. The most sensitive subject is King 
Naresuen of Ayutthaya's invasion and pillage of the capital of Pegu, now 
part of Myanmar and called Bago, in 1599. "Myanmar never tried to highlight 
Thailand's occupation of Mottama and Bago and even played down the incident 
where the Bago Teak Temple was destroyed and looted by the Thais," noted a 
government statement last month.

The border between the two countries, artificially drawn by British 
colonial authorities in Myanmar and often relying on rivers that change 
course, is a source of perpetual friction. Yangon, ruled by the Burman 
majority, has been unable to reach a power-sharing arrangement with ethnic 
minorities along Thailand's western boundary since independence in 1948. An 
estimated one million people from Myanmar are currently in Thailand, as 
refugees or undocumented workers, most illegally.

Independence-minded ethnic insurgents shelter on the Thai side of the 
unmarked border, backed surreptitiously by the Thais, who were supposed to 
have abandoned their so-called buffer policy in the 1990s. Some insurgents 
deal in narcotics to finance their rebellions or simply to make money. 
Elements of the Myanmar military in frontline posts, as well as some Thai 
businessmen and individual police and army personnel, are also involved in 
the drug trade.

Thailand has become alarmed by the inflow, as trafficking in heroin largely 
for export to the West has given way to the demand for methamphetamines for 
the Southeast Asian market. As many as three million Thais are using the 
illicit pills, including middle-class and upper levels of society, in 
contrast with heroin, which has tended to hook manual laborers and the 

Untangling this cross-border mess, which is suffused with official 
propaganda and hypocrisy, won't be easy. But a start must be made, since 
the stakes are high and growing for both countries, and their inability to 
cooperate could underline their stability and further discredit the 
10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While there is little 
chance that they will go to war, the tensions will remain unless specific 
measures are taken to defuse them.

The first step should be to separate the two national armies and withdraw 
them a comfortable distance, leaving an unoccupied zone along the border, 
in order to avoid incidents and accidents. The arrangement should cover the 
full 2,400-kilometer frontier, including the places where the ownership of 
slivers of territory is contested. The long delayed demarcation process 
could then proceed.

Not that demarcation would end movement across the boundary line, which was 
fixed for diplomatic and political reasons that had their logic long ago 
but which never made sense to the communities living there. It would help 
if today's economic dynamics were openly acknowledged. One crucial element 
is that, in addition to about 116,000 Burmese refugees registered with the 
United Nations in Thailand, perhaps nine times that number work irregularly 
in textile and clothing factories, and on fishing trawlers and in 
processing plants set up specifically to employ them as cheap labor.

Narcotics leave a separate trail, with precursor chemicals arriving in 
Myanmar overland from China, India and Thailand, and drugs made in mobile 
jungle labs exported along the same routes. The Thais have become almost 
hysterical, pointing at the United Wa State Army, which has good relations 
with Myanmar's military government, as the dominant methamphetamine 
producer, suggesting collusion between them. The reality is Myanmar gives 
priority to security, happy to have the UWSA end its insurgency and content 
to leave the group armed and with time to shift out of narcotics.

If it wants its claims of fighting drugs and of being a sincere neighbor to 
be taken seriously, Myanmar must pressure the UWSA to go straight. As it 
is, the UWSA is in the process of resettling several hundred thousand of 
its followers from arid, poppy-growing highlands to fertile plains opposite 
Thailand's Chiang Rai province. Within sight of the border, they are 
building towns and opening new fruit and livestock farmlands. But they are 
also producing methamphetamines at an alarming rate, according to Thai and 
Western intelligence sources, protected by thousands of well-trained, 
motivated soldiers.

For its part, Thailand would have more credibility when it says it is 
threatened by the UWSA presence, if it didn't allow politically connected 
businesses in Chiang Mai to profit from the construction boom across the 
border. They are providing the UWSA with food, fuel, transport, materials, 
just about everything -- quite legally. No surprise to find they are 
lobbying to have Yangon reopen the Mae Sai checkpoint, to avoid the 
inconvenience of going through Laos to deal with the UWSA.

Myanmar is correct when it accuses the Thai authorities of supporting the 
Shan State Army, formed by a former aide to retired drug baron Khun Sa, 
encamped close to the border and arguably on Thai soil. Although the armed 
group recently has made a show of combating narcotics, Thai and Western 
officials confirm it is involved in trafficking in order to buy arms. Some 
of the recent clashes have occurred because Myanmar government forces have 
been trying to strike at the Shan State Army.

An agreement by Thailand, Myanmar and China to discuss the suppression of 
narcotics flows is a start. Ultimately, though, a solution rests on a 
settlement of the political and military conflict in Myanmar. And even when 
that happens, the burden of history will continue to weigh heavily on the area.

- - From The Asian Wall Street Journal
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