Border refugees need access to work, jobs, now
Many of the documents signed by Thailand and Myanmar during President Thein Sein's official visit last week were not comprehensive enough to help Myanmar steer its reforms toward the ultimate goal of democracy and reconciliation.
All the agreements - meant to forge cooperation between the two countries - focused solely on economic development and neither leader actually addressed the basic issues necessary for true reform.
Thailand and Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the development of the Dawei special economic zone and other related projects in the area, plus an MoU on development and a joint statement on the setting up of an energy forum.
The MoU on development focuses on Thailand supporting Myanmar in terms of building its human resources, boosting its readiness to perform the role of chairman of Asean in 2014, as well as focusing on economic reform, sustainable development and the building of infrastructure.
The two sides are expected to set up a joint working group at a ministerial level to implement the MoUs, but Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will most probably only concentrate on the Dawei project because Thailand has invested in it.
Yingluck said the working group would look into pending issues relating to Dawei and attending to factors necessary for it to develop, as well as taking into account the interest of communities living in and around the area earmarked for the huge project.
Of course, Dawei has a lot of problems for the two governments to look into, ranging from financial constraints to environmental issues, as well concerns of local communities and ethnic minorities living in surrounding areas.
However, Myanmar has many more issues that need to be addressed in order to push its reform forward.
For instance, on the economic front, Myanmar needs assistance for structural reform in order to change the very fundamentals of the economy. Physical infrastructure development that Thailand is focusing on is just one part of the whole picture.
As for political and security concerns, Thailand needs to pay more attention to the problem of refugees. This country has been sheltering hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled conflict at home, some for more than two decades now. These people cannot spend the rest of their lives in camps along the border. They need better lives and a brighter future for their children, many of whom were born in the camps. Eventually, they will have to move out of the camps to settle somewhere better, and their home country should be one of the possible choices.
Bangkok cannot simply say that it will not repatriate them unless their safety and well being is guaranteed. The government needs to do something more concrete, like allocate some funds for this purpose, as well as consult with the Myanmar authorities and ethnic representatives on the future of the refugees.
As they wait to be sent back, the refugees need to be educated and given skills so their lives can eventually return to normal. This is the time to give refugees access to jobs in Thailand and maybe even on the other side of the border.
This plan has to go along with the ongoing ceasefire and political dialogue between the authorities in Nay Pyi Taw and Myanmar's ethnic groups. Yingluck has said that the government plans to develop a border economy and that she has asked President Thein Sein to open more permanent border checkpoints to facilitate trade and travel.
It would be good if this plan can be included in the repatriation process in the future.
It's not too late to sit down with Myanmar authorities and put all the necessary items on the table and work toward proper reform that opens a real new chapter in relations between the two neighbours.