The enthusiasm of Myanmar’s leadership for their migrants to return and work for the country’s development should be a wake-up call for Thailand, Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan has warned.

He said Thai policy-makers should pay heed to the change next door and shift from a labour-intensive economy to one with higher skills.

The Asean chief expressed optimism about the “new real change” in Myanmar after a three-day visit to the country early this week with Asean and dialogue partner representatives.

“Both the president and [Nobel Peace laureate and opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi were upbeat that perhaps within 10 years Myanmar will be better off and be the most advanced and prosperous member of Asean,” Mr Surin said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand yesterday.

He said both the government and opposition leaders were welcoming back migrant workers as several industrial zones and development projects were being planned.

“Now it is Thailand who will certainly face a problem in replacing some two million workers who will be returning home,” he said.

Mr Surin also told the Bangkok Post that Myanmar people have been migrating to Thailand and other neighbouring countries because there were few jobs or only insecure ones at home. But if positive developments do take place there, they would soon go back.

“This should remind Thai authorities of the need to shift from an unskilled economy to a knowledge-based or skilled economy over the long run,” he said.

While the need to improve the migrant registration system is still there to ensure basic human rights are respected, Thailand has to look at medium- and long-term strategies as Myanmar is moving in a labour-intensive direction, Mr Surin said.

He told the media and diplomatic audience that President Thein Sein and his parliament were confident about their future path.

“They want to go about the roadmap within their comfort level. They realise that 2014 [when Myanmar takes its turn as Asean chair] will offer both challenges and opportunities. They have to be prepared for hardware developments for road, telecom, internet, hotel, banking and financial system upgrades,” Mr Surin said.

But like other former authoritarian states that are opening up, the pace and depth of internal reform will be controlled by Myanmar’s leadership. At times observers have doubted if Myanmar’s leaders would be faithful to their promises, he conceded.

“I sense that the commitment is very strong. The confidence is there, including from the Lady, given that she is running herself in the April by-election,” said Mr Surin, referring to Mrs Suu Kyi.

He sought to dispel the pessimistic notion that national reconciliation might fail.

“This time I sense that there are two levels of national reconciliation going on – at national and regional levels. And I was told by Myanmar advisers that in the next couple of weeks there should be some good progress on the nationalities issue,” he said.

Mr Surin concluded that the wind of change in Myanmar relies on five factors: Mrs Suu Kyi’s role in the body politic, a resolution on political prisoners, peace and reconciliation with ethnic groups, security within the political space that has been opening up for the people, and a guarantee of freedom and safety for Mrs Suu Kyi.

“An alliance for reform is there. Dynamism is there. So we should give Myanmar a chance,” said Mr Surin. –