Thais divided by the Rangoon connection

THE campaign by Nobel Peace Prize winners to pressure Rangoon's military regime into freeing the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has pushed Thailand's controversial relationship with Burma into the spotlight.

The seven Nobel laureates and Burmese opposition groups now in Bangkok have been careful to compliment the Thais for allowing them to enter the country. The South African anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that Thailand could becomethe region's ''human rights centre'' if it carried on the good work.

Yet the director of the Bangkok-based Project for Ecological Recovery, Mr Witoon Permpongsacharoen, took the opposite view in an open letter to the Prime Minister Mr Chuan Leekpai a fortnight ago which complained that ''the Thai government has positioned itself squarely against Burma's pro-democracy movement''.

Mr Witoon was complaining about Thailand's decision to sign a business co-operation agreement with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), as the Rangoon regime styles itself. He said: ''These links finance SLORC's nationwide campaign of brutal repression and military offensives against the people of Burma.'' This seeming contradiction highlights the opposing forces at work in Thailand. It is too early to say if Mr Chuan and his colleagues plan to take positive steps to promote democracy and human rights in Burma. But observers are encouraged that the government has been prepared to admit the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, despite risking the wrath of China.

However, the sharp criticism from Thailand's army and air force chiefs, to the effect that allowing a bunch of do-gooders in could do more harm than good, was a timely reminder that some members of the Thai establishment have their own Burmese agenda. The army's commander-in-chief General Wimol Wongwanich tartly observed: ''If this were my home I would never allow the visit.'' Members of the Burmese opposition say the strength of Thailand's pro-Burma lobby was demonstrated five months ago when, minutes after obtaining King Bhumibol Adulyadej's formal permission to take up office, Mr Chuan announced that the policy of ''constructive engagement'' with Rangoon would be maintained.

This instant foreign policy contrasted strongly with pre-election calls by the Foreign Minister, Prasong Soonsiri, for a review of ties with Burma. But there is another factor. Elements in the military and some members of the government are said to have made substantial sums of money from cross-border trade.

The House of Representatives' foreign affairs committee spokesman, Mr Sutham Saengprathum, a member of the coalition government's Plang Dharma Party, sees constructive engagement only ''to be of short-term benefit to limited elite groups in the two countries''.

The Interior Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh dragged Burma from the brink of bankruptcy on December 14, 1988, when, as army chief, he flew in with an 80-strong retinue to lunch with the junta's General Saw Maung - only four months after the general's soldiers had gunned down perhaps 3,000 pro-democracy protesters.

At the time Burma, which had US$5.98 billion (about HK$46 billion) in debts costing it US$238 million a year to service, was reported to be down to its last US$12 million of foreign exchange reserves.

Mr Chavalit's party came back with an armful of business contracts as a desperate regime sold off huge tracts of forest, gems and fishing rights - deals so lucrative that many of them are privately described by one Burmese activist as ''You-turn-your-back-and-I'll-take-what-I-want'' contracts.

Mr Chavalit has denied involvement in the trade although his son-in-law's father, Mr Boonchu Trithong, the deputy finance minister from Mr Chavalit's New Aspiration Party, was named in parliament as a former director of Sirin Technology, one of the companies undertaking intensive logging in Burma. Mr Chavalit's son-in-law, Mr Boonchu's son, has also been linked to Burmese logging.

If Mr Chuan's government was elected on a wave of revulsion at military meddling five months ago, cynical observers in the Thai capital argue that too many people are making too much money for the current policy of constructive engagement to be changedmarkedly.

Thailand, and its fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have insisted that shunning Burma won't necessarily lead it to change its ways.

ASEAN can point to Western investments in Burma as evidence of double standards, yet cannot hide from the fact that Western trade and investment is minimal compared to Thailand's huge involvement.

Some 40 logging concessions were awarded to Thai firms over the past four years: if some have expired then significant quantities of cut logs still await transportation out of Burma. Business appears set to grow: the state-owned Petroleum Authority ofThailand Exploration and Production is about to invest in a multi-billion dollar pipeline bringing natural gas from Burma's Martaban Gulf through the Three Pagodas Pass.

Coincidentally this is the route of the Japanese army's notorious Death Railway during World War II. Thousands of local and foreign prisoners died building the railway; today Burma's government-in-exile reckons that thousands of Burmese are being forced to undertake the groundwork for the route in appalling conditions.

Another state enterprise, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, has plans to build eight large dams of a total generating capacity of 6,400 megawatts costing about HK$50 billion.

The two largest will be on the Salween river, others on the Moei river and elsewhere. These will flood hundreds of square kilometres of rich agricultural land and forest, and force mainly indigenous minorities off the land they depend on for their survival.

Thai claims that they do not interfere with domestic politics contrast starkly with the fact that nearly all their Burma business, the logging, the dams, the smuggling, takes place in or around virtual war zones.

The Bangkok-based lawyer and human rights advocate, Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn, said: ''I don't buy the 'internal' argument at all - it is self-serving and short-sighted. The world is recognising that human rights are not, repeat not, just an internal matter.'' Mr Win Khet, a senior member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party detects a hardening in Thai attitudes to human rights abuses across the border. ''This is coming to the fore this week but we'll have to see if the mood is strong enough to overcome the resistance once the Nobel Peace Prize winners have gone home,'' he said.

The day for hard decisions in Thailand may not be delayed too long if the Nobel campaign succeeds in jolting the United Nations into taking a much tougher stance over Burma, the more so since there are the first tentative signs of cracks in the brutalregime in Rangoon.

Thailand might do well to note that even delegates hand-picked by the junta recently appeared reluctant to enshrine the military's future political role in a new constitution. Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn says: ''Burma's future leaders will judge us by how we act now. They may judge us harshly.''