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Myanmar has the Sleeping Tiger Awoken



Thailand is pushing for the opening of new border routes with neighbouring Myanmar to boost two-way trade


CHIANGRAI TIMES – Every road is leading to Myanmar and a number of Thai and foreign companies are joining the bandwagon as they don’t want to miss the golden opportunities opening up next door.

I had a chance to visit Myanmar last month. After my four-day trip to several cities, I can say that this once-closed country will become very attractive in many areas once the long imposed trade sanctions by Western countries including the United States, are lifted.

In my opinion, the atmosphere in many big cities that I went to is similar to that of Bangkok or Chiang Mai some 30-40 years ago.

I was quite impressed to see that people in Myanmar are very religious and go to pay respects to the Lord Buddha at temples near their homes and workplaces many times a day. Such a thing is rare in Thailand nowadays.

Our local guide said Myanmar, which could be dubbed “a sleeping tiger”, is turning over and waking up from a long sleep. Its people are pinning their hopes on future economic development, now that the country’s military regime is shifting towards democracy.

He complimented our tour group and said Thai businessmen should invest more in his country. The Burmese people like Thailand, and millions of them have come to work here. Moreover, they consider Thai-made products to be luxury items due to their high quality. I was not completely taken in by these sweet words, however.

It is undeniable that Myanmar has a lot of opportunities awaiting investors from around the world and Thailand should make the most of this. We are already so close; it only takes an hour by plane to reach the commercial capital of Yangon.

Myanmar is rich in natural resources and cultural heritage, and if the country uses these two boons efficiently, it could develop very quickly and attract a lot of tourists.

And if the few million Myanmar workers currently here in Thailand should decide to return home, what would Thailand do? We would be in short supply of maids and factory workers. At present our country has a serious labour shortage, so we have no choice but to rely on foreign workers.

An artist's impression of the Dawei industrial complex and deep-sea port

And have you heard about the Dawei industrial development project in the eastern part of Myanmar? It is 10 times bigger than Rayong’s Map Ta Phut industrial estate. If this project really takes shape, it will draw a lot of foreign investment for sure and this will eventually affect Thailand. (It is not my intention to make Thai factory owners nervous; what I am saying is that we should prepare ourselves to take on a different role, so as to make the most of the precious opportunities opening up across the border.)

Indeed, Thai companies should invest in Myanmar, using their own strengths and production advantages to establish a presence there. It’s time the Thai people learned to speak Burmese and familiarised themselves with the food and culture there. We could also take on the role of an elder brother, assisting a younger sibling to stand and walk firmly. Myanmar’s growth will be good for Thailand as well. One point we cannot overlook is that we ourselves will need to develop a step further so as not to compete for cheap labour. We must increase the value of our products and make more high-end goods.

In the area of tourism, Thailand will have to find new angles and products to attract more foreign visitors because our eco-tourism sites are probably not as fresh and exciting as the places now opening up in Myanmar. If Thailand can find a new selling point, we will be able to maintain our leadership in regional tourism and continue to advance alongside our neighbouring country because the Thai brand remains strong in the world community.

My Myanmar guide told me one thing I won’t easily forget. Everything is in a flux, he said. Myanmar used to be the centre of development in Southeast Asia 40 years ago; then it suffered a serious setback brought on by decades of military rule. Now the sleeping tiger has awoken, and as it increases speed to catch up on developments, it might even overtake Thailand _ if the Thais don’t stop fighting among themselves. Dare I believe him? The truth of his statement should become clear in the very near future.

Writer: Krissana Parnsoonthorn

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