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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs    29 May 2012

Thein Sein drops out of WEF Bangkok

29 May, 2012

Myanmar President Thein Sein has postponed a trip to Thailand, dropping out of the World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia, in an apparent attempt to avoid being overshadowed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

A spokesman for the WEF, which takes place on Thursday and Friday, confirmed on the phone yesterday that the President would not be attending. He had been due to attend the opening ceremony on Thursday and to speak at a session on Friday.

Separately, Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Thein Sein's state visit to Thailand will take place on Monday and Tuesday. That means he will not be in Thailand at the same time as - or share the same space at the WEF meeting with - Myanmar's democracy icon Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi, 66, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), is arriving in Bangkok tonight.

Until yesterday, her itinerary was still not clear, but she was expected to visit Myanmar migrant workers at the Mahachai seafood wholesale market south of Bangkok tomorrow and then go to a refugee camp near the border town of Mae Sot after the WEF.

She will meet Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and leader of the opposition Abhisit Vejjajiva. She will also appear at two sessions at the WEF.

There was no official reason given for President Thein Sein's postponement though the 66-year-old, who has a pacemaker, was said to be not feeling well recently.

He met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Naypyidaw yesterday. Suu Kyi was also scheduled to meet the Indian premier before leaving for Bangkok.

She is due to go in June to Switzerland, Norway, the UK and Ireland. In Norway, she will receive her Nobel Prize and join a retreat to chalk out strategies for Myanmar, attended by key civil society and academic figures from within and outside of Myanmar.

The president is the main driver of reforms that have ended Myanmar's long-standing pariah status in the West and sparked intense interest from foreign investors as sanctions against the country begin to be lifted.

It was a historic meeting between president Thein Sein and Suu Kyi last August that broke a decades-long stalemate and convinced the Nobel laureate to return to active politics.

The NLD, with Suu Kyi, swept by-elections on April 1, and occupies 43 seats in the 664-seat Parliament, a small minority but symbolic as a step towards an electoral system after decades of military dictatorship.

But analysts say that while the president and his liberal allies seem to have the upper hand, reforms are still at a fragile stage.

Managing the process and striking a strategic balance, particularly among three key individuals - the president, Speaker of the Lower House Shwe Mann and Suu Kyi - will be critical to sustain the reforms and stabilise the country. As such, Suu Kyi's visits to Thailand and Europe will be closely watched, not least because her views are influential in policy-making circles in the West.

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It is commonplace in journalism to write two types of articles at the transition point between the year that has passed and the New Year. As this writer qualifies as an “old hand” in observing Thailand with a track record dating back 14 years, it is time take a shot at what may unfold in Thailand in 2011.

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