Wednesday February 22, 2012
Kickstarting bilateral ties
By Mergawati Zulfakar
It was a productive visit for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra although she only spent a couple of hours in Malaysia.
THE weather had prevented her from coming to Malaysia earlier and when she finally did arrive in Putrajaya on Monday, it remained unkind to her.
However, the moment Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra stepped indoors, she broke into a beautiful smile and everything brightened up.
Malaysia-Thailand relations are back on track.
As she sat down for the bilateral meeting with Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, what struck those in attendance was her smile. She is one classy lady, said an official.
“Her smile is just lovely. She may not be articulate in English and she lacks experience as a leader, but she knows what she wants,” said a senior official.
The meeting did not last long. Officials have already laid a lot of groundwork before the leaders met.
“Yingluck is here to build bridges and touch base with us,” said a Cabinet minister.
The last time a leaders meeting took place was December 2009 when Najib made his first official visit to Bangkok as Prime Minister and Abhisit Vejajjiva was his counterpart.
It was during Abhisit's time that Kuala Lumpur managed to get things moving. He somehow managed to strike the right chord with Malaysia during his leadership, especially on an issue close to home for Kuala Lumpur the restive Thai southern provinces.
However, with Thai domestic political problems and change in leadership, some outstanding issues discussed and agreed with the previous administration were put on hold. Meetings could not be held and leaders did not get to meet.
So when Yingluck finally made her appearance in Putrajaya, Najib did not waste any time. The Prime Minister stressed the southern problem and security matters.
Najib made it clear that Bangkok should engage with their people in the south.
Kuala Lumpur is concerned with spillover from the escalating violence as these areas border Malaysia.
How did Yingluck react?
“She took it rather well,” said an official.
Malaysia has consistently made it clear that as much as troubles in these provinces were domestic problems, Thailand must find workable solutions.
“We must endeavour to find workable solutions in terms of great participation in the economic activities of the people in the South and greater say in some of the matters that are close to their heart like education, religion and some of the cultural matters as well as seeking more economic development and opportunities in the South.
“So Malaysia stands to assist Thailand on request in whatever way possible so that there will be a long-term peaceful solution in the South,” said Najib at a joint press conference.
Thailand also wants to look at new cross border agreements, emphasising the use of border passes for free flow of people between the two countries.
Kuala Lumpur is reluctant as it is not in line with the original idea that border passes were introduced to allow people to visit their relatives.
“They want to use the border passes to cover states like Penang, which is not even bordering Thailand. Malaysia doesn't even think it is even suitable for Perak.
“We already have recurring problems of illegal traders and illegal transport operators operating in Malaysia. We don't want bad people crossing into our country,” said an official.
Security is another concern in light of terror threat being a global concern.
“We are really concerned, especially when Bangkok is grappling with its own security issues,” said an official in reference to the arrest of three Iranians for plotting bomb attacks in Bangkok last week. Malaysia arrested another Iranian alleged to be involved in the plot.
The two governments announced a second Rantau Panjang-Sungai Golok link and a new Pengkalan Kubor-Takbai bridge.
The existing bridge in Rantau Panjang could not cope with the increasing traffic, thus the proposal for a second one. However, building of the two bridges are still at discussion level.
Hundreds of people travel daily across the Golok River between Malaysia and Thailand for business and leisure.
The first bridge in Rantau Panjang was built in 1973 while a second bridge was opened in December 2009 from Bukit Bunga in Malaysia to Buketa over the Golok River.
It was still a productive visit for Yingluck although she only spent a couple of hours in Malaysia.
In the meantime, a host of meetings involving officials and ministers are waiting in the wings this year, including joint commission for bilateral cooperation, joint development strategy for border areas and general border committee.
One can only hope that as Yingluck faces more domestic challenges, she will help to resuscitate the mechanisms already in place to kickstart relations. For a start, both leaders have already planned to meet again by the year-end.
One can only wait with bated breath.