Tension at the border

Tension at the border

5 April 2007

published by www.bangkokpost.com

Klong Toey, Bangkok, Thailand — Traders hope skirmishes between the Burmese junta and ethnic minorities will not result in the border being closed / CNS generals unhappy with the PM are said to be considering whether to approach Anand Panyarachun / Minister Paiboon is working very hard these days, trying to solve many social problems

The recent haze crisis in the North may have a negative impact on the region, particularly on the health of local people, but an imminent closure of the Thai-Burmese border as a result of conflicts between the Burmese government and ethnic minorities, may prove gloomier than the smog.

The haze that has devastated the northern provinces has come mainly from forest fires and slash-and-burn farming practices in the neighbouring country, over which Thailand has no authority.

The issues of haze and border conflict were raised recently at a meeting of the Thai-Burma Township Border Committee (TBC) in the Burmese border town of Tachilek, opposite Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district, in a bid to improve cooperation between local authorities.

The efforts to put out the forest fires and curb slash-and-burn farming practices has paid off, but the meeting at the local level could not guarantee that the border will not be closed due to “the looming flames of war.”

In fact, bilateral relations became touchy again when a Thai ranger was killed by a grenade coming from the Burmese side, where Burmese troops clashed with ethnic minority fighters opposite Chiang Rai’s Mae Fa Luang district.

The incident was followed a few days later by the kidnapping of a border patrol policeman by another ethnic minority group at the border in Kanchanaburi.

The incidents subsequently led to border closures in Mae Hong Son and Tak.

As for Tachilek, no order on the closure has been issued yet but there is widespread speculation that a sealing may be unavoidable as fighting between the Burmese and ethnic groups intensifies.

The Burmese junta has mobilised troops to strategic mountainous areas in Tachilek town. The mass mobilisation of 758 and 751 rapid deployment forces included more than 500 armed troopers.

Their target of attack was a base of the Shan ethnic group located opposite Chiang Rai’s Mae Fa Luang district.

But the smog delayed the attack. It shrouded the area and caused the Burmese forces to put its military action on hold.

Shan ethnic forces, based on Doi Kor Wan, Doi Kor Hom and Doi Kor Muang mountains, are well aware of the Burmese army’s movement which is common in the dry season. They prepared for the attack a month ago.

The Burmese troops have to make careful decisions about their military strategies, as any attack against the Shan forces now might aggravate border problems with Thailand.

And if that is the case, it will definitely affect border trading at Mae Sai district – as has happened in the past, particularly at the time when Gen Surayud Chulanont was army chief and Gen Wattanachai Chaimuenwong was Third Army commander.

Now local traders are keeping their fingers crossed that the Burmese suppression against the minority ethnic groups will not result in another border closure, because that would hammer another nail in the coffin of the local economy, which was badly affected by the recent haze crisis.

Looking for a new PM?

There have been reports of a rift between Council for National Security chief Sonthi Boonyaratkalin and Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, after the latter decided against declaring a state of emergency in Bangkok.

It was the first time that the prime minister had turned down a proposal from the CNS since they began working together six months ago.

Suggestions about the new choice for prime minister have been given to the CNS following the reported rift.

One suggestion was that Gen Sonthi take up the premiership himself without the need to step down as army chief. If he wanted it, Gen Sonthi could take on the job as the interim charter does not bar government officials from serving in a political capacity.

However, the army chief disagreed with this proposal, fearing he would be bombarded with criticism from the very first day in Government House.

Leading CNS members reportedly shared the common belief that the CNS chairman had picked the wrong horse. They felt Gen Surayud’s six-month performance report had shown he was not fit to run the country during this unusual political situation. His cabinet worked as if the country were in a normal situation. His ministers have been criticised for staying in “neutral gear”, for failing to get on with their assigned tasks.

Recently, the name of former prime minister Anand Panyarachun was proposed as Gen Surayud’s successor. Mr Anand is not a new face. He was picked by past coup-makers to lead the country. He was chosen as the prime minister after the Black May tragedy. However, most CNS members did not think they could work with Mr Anand. At least, Gen Surayud paid attention to their views.

But as the CNS wants to be internationally accepted and justify the four reasons for the coup – that the past government of Thaksin Shinawatra created social divisions, had vested interests, interfered with independent public organisations and showed disrespect to the monarchy – Mr Anand could perhaps be the best choice. The problem is the CNS would have to find ways to persuade Mr Anand to accept the job – after they find someone brave enough to persuade Gen Surayud to quit, voluntarily of course. This would prevent a possible repeat coup.

Pressure groups – including those which turned their backs on the Thaksin regime, the anti-coup alliances and those who were upset with the Surayud government’s performance – are now reaching an impasse as they cannot find a way out of the political crisis.

They have been left with no choice but to accept – if the country will have Mr Anand as prime minister again.

His international recognition, decisiveness and ability are his advantages.

There have been calls for Mr Anand to be open to suggestions. Those pressure groups want him to appoint people who are not “his circle of friends” to his cabinet. They do not want him to form another “old ginger cabinet” or appoint those who are of his age.

All these proposals would be meaningless, however, if Mr Anand does not want to hear them.

Out and about gathering input

Following his promotion to deputy prime minister, Social Development and Human Security Minister Paiboon Wattanasiritham has been working very hard to deal with several social problems assigned to him by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont.

These problems include the haze crisis in the northern provinces, the spread of HIV/Aids among the youth and children, the proliferation of pornography and other inappropriate content in the media especially the Internet, and poverty among farmers.

Mr Paiboon has already initiated various pro-active measures to deal with those problems. He has travelled to learn about them first-hand and to listen to the plight and opinions of people affected over the past few weeks.

Last week he went to Nakhon Ratchasima to hold talks with several groups of northeastern farmers who were on their way back home after being dissatisfied with the government’s slow progress in solving their poverty problems. These debt-ridden farmers had staged a rally and set up makeshift tents outside Government House, calling for state help in solving their long-time problems.

“From now on, I will try to travel to meet and talk to representatives of every farmers’ group in the country no matter how far they live,” Mr Paiboon said, adding he was certain that such a pro-active measure would help the debt-ridden farmers understand the government’s working style better.

Over this coming long weekend, Mr Paiboon will travel to Mae Hong Son to meet with local authorities and villagers to gauge the haze and smoke situation and see how efforts to resolve it have progressed. Then he will go to meet impoverished farmer groups in Kalasin and Si Saket. There he will bring along the government’s plan to tackle poverty to propose to the groups for consideration.

“This government has never sat idly by and looked on as the people’s problems remained unresolved. In fact it is continuously working to find solutions but the people should understand that each solution takes time to materialise,” Mr Paiboon said.

He said the government had already called for help from caretakers of the government’s several agricultural funds and commercial banks such as the Government Savings Bank and the Agricultural and Cooperatives Bank. And these banks and funds’ representatives would accompany him to meet these farmers and to brief them on how best they could provide them with financial assistance alternatives.

Before taking the deputy prime minister’s post, Mr Paiboon had been accused by the Campaign for Popular Democracy and its networks of being inactive in his capacity as head of the Social Development and Human Security Ministry. He brushed the accusation aside as groundless.

“I never feel angry with critics who have never talked to me in person or seen what work I have been doing,” he said.

His equanimity must have paid off. Now, even Suriyasai Katasila, secretary-general of the CPD, one of Mr Paiboon’s critics, is satisfied with the minister’s touring initiative and wants him to travel around to meet rural people and to gather first-hand information from them just as soon as he can.

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