Thailand could revise its policy towards Myanmar

Karen refugees wait to cross the Moei River after regime airstrikes in March 2021. / The Irrawaddy

By Ashley South July 11, 2022

Thailand has unique national security concerns compared to Myanmar. The State Administrative Council is not a credible or reliable security partner. Following the February 2021 coup, the Burmese junta has been unable to consolidate effective power while anti-regime forces have shown resilience and are growing stronger.

Border relations

For centuries, Thailand has had informal relationships with communities along its borders. These include armed groups and their political wings. Thailand has for decades hosted refugees from regional wars and civilian casualties from Myanmar.

During the Cold War, Thai security authorities turned a blind eye to insurgent groups in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, and sometimes quietly supported them. However, since the late 1990s, Thailand has pursued a regional policy of turning battlefields into markets.

Former Thai prime minister and architect of the victory over communism, the late General Chatchai Choohaven, built a mercantilist foreign policy that saw Bangkok establish constructive relationships with internationally recognized governments in neighboring countries. Regional elites have sometimes combined commercial interests with shrewd geopolitical balancing.

This policy has been relatively successful for Thai relations with Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos – and it seems to be bearing fruit in Myanmar. But not anymore.

Thailand has security interests with Myanmar that are not necessarily shared by international partners.

What is needed are pragmatic policies for Myanmar that work in the interest of national, economic and social security.

Myanmar’s then-Commander-in-Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing (left), with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha at government headquarters in Bangkok in September 2019. / AFP

Before the coup, it was reasonable for Thailand to maintain regular bilateral relations with Myanmar. With the two ASEAN countries, the relationship was arguably less problematic than at any time since World War II and there were fewer armed conflicts along the border.

This all changed after the 2021 coup. The main victims were the displaced minority communities along the borders and those seeking to enter Thailand as migrant workers. There are around 3 million migrant workers from Myanmar in Thailand and well over 100,000 refugees, mostly from ethnic minorities.

Myanmar’s junta is widely seen as illegitimate and illegal.

More than 2,000 citizens have been killed by the regime, as well as countless numbers in ethnic minority areas caught up in renewed civil wars.

In almost all of the 320 cantons, People’s Defense Forces (PDF) have emerged. These are diverse, some aligned with the civilian government of national unity, some working with long-established ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), and others operating independently.

About 12 EAOs control significant tracts of territory and provide administrative and other services to large populations.

Major groups include the Karen National Union, New Mon State Party, Karenni Nationalities Progressive Party (KNPP), and the Restoration Council of Shan State. They have extensive governance systems and provide health, education and other services, which are often the only assistance available to vulnerable and displaced communities. It is extremely important for Thailand.

Options under uncertainty

Covid has shown how vulnerable the world is to disease. These threats are likely to increase in the context of climate change. Thailand legitimately fears that regional conflicts will have negative effects on the kingdom.

From 2010 until the 2021 coup, it made sense for Thailand to support stabilization in Myanmar through bilateral ties with its governments and military.

But the junta failed to suppress dissent and consolidate power. It controls key cities and large rural swaths. But the regime has lost its grip over large areas and is using battlefield weapons and airstrikes against civilians.

Some EAOs and their poorly armed PDF allies repelled the junta.

Large areas of Kayah State are controlled by the Karenni Nationalities Defense Forces and the KNPP.

In the regions of Sagaing and Magwe, the PDF hold ground despite the attacks of the junta. Although the figures are disputed, resistance groups claim to have killed thousands of soldiers.

At least 3,000 soldiers and several hundred police defected.

The Myanmar Air Force is attacking civilians and its jets encroached on Phop Phra district in Thailand’s Tak province earlier this month. Thailand continues to suffer from the appalling mistreatment of citizens by the junta, which drives new refugees across the border.

Script building

It seems likely that the conflicts in Myanmar will drag on for some time.

There is a lot of passion among the opposition, especially the youth, and it is impossible to see the PDFs and EAOs surrendering or being defeated.

Neither party is willing or able to negotiate. Even if junta leader Min Aung Hlaing were replaced, the regime is unlikely to be ready to lose face by relinquishing power.

Min Aung Hlaing could force “elections” in August 2023. However, voting will be impossible in large swaths of the country and polls will lack legitimacy and credibility.

Myanmar has reverted to the pariah status of the 1990s with a collapsing economy and widespread insurgency. This will expose Thailand to continued threats and instability.

Thailand can no longer engage exclusively with the Naypyidaw regime. It might be better to resume its buffer zone policy. Under this patronage system, Thailand would informally support parastatal entities, under the authority of the EAOs, as border partners.

EAOs could cooperate to mitigate cross-border health threats and cooperate in maintaining security.

With the right support, border entities could also support the Thai economy. By regulating the arrival of migrant workers, Thailand could greatly benefit.

Joint business activities are feasible and could be mutually beneficial.

Such an overhaul would not require Thailand to formally modify existing policies. Engagement with the junta would no doubt continue, perhaps on a more cautious diplomatic level, reflecting the regime’s shameful abuse of ASEAN. Relations with AEOs and other groups could remain informal.

For centuries, it has been in Thailand’s interest to cultivate constructive relationships with the communities that have guarded its western border.

Many of these people are now suffering terribly. The United Nations calculates that at least 750,000 people have been displaced since the coup.

Many face acute physical and food insecurity and a crisis in health and education services, with many of these people near the Thai border.

These humanitarian needs can be met by aid organizations if they have access to the international donor community. Thailand just has to open the door.

Thailand has a long Buddhist humanitarian tradition, which includes the protection of vulnerable people in Myanmar. Thailand has the opportunity to restore its image with the young people who will be the future leaders of Myanmar.

By supporting them now, Thailand will be investing in a relationship that could last for decades.

Such a strategy need not be expensive. By enabling organizations to help people in border areas, Thailand can help ensure their good health and safety. This will significantly lessen the impact on Thailand of the armed conflict in Myanmar.

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