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Burma will test Yingluck’s foreign policy agenda

A landslide victory in the Thai elections last month has put international attention firmly on Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and her Puea Thai party. Regional observers will be busy speculating about the shift in Thailand’s political landscape over the coming months, and included in this will be testing questions about what the change in leadership will mean for refugees from Burma, or Burma policy in general.

At her first formal press conference with the foreign media on Friday last week, Yingluck gave few details about her plans for refugees, telling reporters it was still too early as no official decisions had yet been made.

Asked however if she hoped the new government in Burma would make a better business partner for Thailand, and if there was any intention to increase engagement with Naypyidaw, the prime minister-elect was more decisive. “I think if we talk in a diplomatic way, I believe we can have the best results for both countries. All the countries in the region form a neighbourhood, so I think we have to find a way to do business together.”

Yingluck also thanked Aung San Suu Kyi for congratulating her on her victory at the polls, and insisted that she and Puea Thai intended to “support human rights.” While little elaboration was given about the exact meaning of this, Surapong Kongchantuk, the chairperson of a human-rights sub-committee for stateless people of the Lawyer’s Council of Thailand, isn’t so convinced.

“Although it’s a new government, the same faces always appear, except for the PM herself. So it’s quite predictable how this new government will act,” he said. “And since Yingluck is Thaksin’s sister, we can look to Thaksin’s track record as an indication of what to expect.”

Should the Puea Thai party’s slogan, ‘Thaksin thinks, the party acts’, not have been explicit enough, Yingluck in fact campaigned on the premise that a vote for her is a vote for her brother.

Surapong has been reporting to the government on the legal frameworks for repatriating refugees for almost 20 years, and has experience dealing directly with Thai policymakers across several administrations.

As the dust settles after the polls, and the impending reshuffle of people in positions of power ensues, he believes it could spell further months or years of neglect for some 150,000 refugees along Thailand’s border with Burma.

Earlier this year, the EU reduced funding to the nine official camps, and rice rations have been reduced as a result – a decision Surapong claimed amounts to harassed coercion in a report submitted to the Thai government last month. The report offers detailed proposals on how to deal with the refugees in accordance with international law, and determined that closing them under the current circumstances was not an option.

The report was submitted to the former prime minister, the National Security Council, and ministries of defense and interior, who all have yet to respond. “The government normally responds by thanking us for our concern, and claims they’ll discuss the matters with concerned authorities but we have not seen that they have addressed our concerns with action.”

Sally Thompson of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium resisted the urge to speculate about any direct effect on refugees. “It’s simply too early to tell what will happen with the camps.”

Nevertheless, Surapong expects policy shifts that might cause setbacks in his work with the government on refugee rights. “The Shinawatra family is a business family, and when the government was very business-oriented in the past, it was to the detriment of its human rights record and rights of refugees. That’s a concern.”

Thaskin and his family allegedly have direct business ties to the Burmese government. Surapong cited energy projects and other large infrastructure projects as particular concerns, and pointed out that this marks a significant change from the current outgoing foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, whose relationship with the government was “strained.”

“It appears that the Chinese and Burmese governments are cooperating on the military attack against the Kachin [Independence Army in northern Burma] for mutual benefit,” Surapong says. “The situation is not all too dissimilar from the situation along the Thai-Burma border, seeing as there are plans to build a deep-sea port in Tavoy. Should the situation on our borders escalate as they have in Kachin state and result in violence, it will have a very negative impact on the repatriation process.”

Another concern is that refugees from Burma simply are not a priority. The Ministry of Defense, which has been responsible for dealing with the refugees that crossed from Karen state, has its hands full with an insurgency in the south, and skirmishes on the Cambodia border over the Preah Vihear temple. The elections on 3 July also put authorities on high alert, given Thailand’s long history of political instability and protest.

Thaksin’s human rights record is far from clean: his war on drugs, which killed an estimated 2,500 alleged drug dealers without appropriate trials or investigations, is still in recent memory. Yingluck nevertheless made a campaign promise to “eliminate” drugs in 12 months. She was not able to elaborate on concrete plans at the press conference.

“I could be wrong,” Surapong concludes. I didn’t think [former prime minister] Abhisit [Vejjajiva] was going to use force against protestors or illegally repatriate Hmong Lao, but he did. So maybe Yingluck will surprise us.”