Analysis

New Envoy to Steer Thailand’s Response to Myanmar Crisis

By The Irrawaddy 2 May 2022

The already long list of governments and blocs to have appointed a special envoy to crisis-torn Myanmar has grown with the Thai Foreign Ministry’s designation of Pornpimol “Pauline” Kanchanalak, an adviser to the Thai foreign minister, as Bangkok’s special envoy for relations with Myanmar.

The move sees Thailand follow in the footsteps of China, Japan, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the UN, the latter having named veteran diplomat Noeleen Heyzer of Singapore as its envoy. 

It is still unclear what mandate the Thai special envoy has been given. Pornpimol is known to be close to Thai Foreign Affairs Minister Don Pramudwinai and to have gained his confidence and trust.

Last week, Don, who also serves as deputy prime minister, said Pornpimol was given the post in part due to her extensive knowledge of the neighboring country. It is not clear, however, whether she has visited Myanmar recently, and little is known about her knowledge of the country’s complex political situation or the web of ethnic conflicts that has long beset military-ruled Myanmar.

In the past, Pornpimol worked at the Bangkok Post, before moving to Washington to embark on a career as a lobbyist. She later became a key adviser to the Thai Foreign Ministry.

Pornpimol Kanchanalak, adviser to the Thai foreign affairs minister / Bangkok Post

Don told the Bangkok Post that while Pornpimol has already played a key role as a ministry adviser, her  ability to join discussions with high-ranking foreign officials has been limited. Her new position will lift those curbs, he said, adding that such appointments are common in the European Union,.

Thailand and its troubled neighbor share a more than 2,000-km-long border, along which hundreds of thousands of refugees live. In addition, millions of Myanmar migrant workers in the kingdom have recently been joined by newly arrived activists and other compatriots fleeing political persecution under the military junta that seized power from Myanmar’s democratically elected government in 2021. 

Myanmar has closed all checkpoints along the Thai border since April 23, when a car bomb exploded near the Myanmar entrance to the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, in Myawaddy, Karen State, opposite Thailand’s Mae Sot. 

Business owners have cried foul, saying the move could cost them up to 500,000 Thai baht (nearly US$15,000) per day, and have urged the Thai government to coordinate with Myanmar authorities to solve the problem.

According to Don’s designation order, Myanmar is strategically important to Thailand in terms of geopolitics, the economy, society and national security. He said Pornpimol would closely monitor the situation in Myanmar and ensure that the ministry’s policies on the country are adhered to. 

Don visited Myanmar in November but only disclosed the trip after he returned. He said he traveled to Naypyitaw to deliver humanitarian aid and to hold talks with coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

His trip to the Myanmar capital coincided with visits by special envoys from China and Japan.

At the time, Don said the Myanmar crisis was of concern to many countries, telling The Nation, “The Thai private sector is concerned about the situation in the neighboring country and has collected essential items and sent them to Myanmar.”

According to diplomatic sources, the delegation to Naypyitaw comprised five members, including a senior adviser to the deputy prime minister, his chief of staff and a counselor from his office. 

Senior Thai army commanders are known to have close links with the Myanmar military, and the coup leader has visited Thailand 11 times.

In October, Thai academics held a discussion on Thai foreign policy at Chiang Mai University’s School of Public Policy. Along with former senior Foreign Ministry officials, they said that Thailand, as a frontline state, should lead, and not be led by, ASEAN in dealing with Myanmar.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, former Thai permanent secretary for foreign affairs, said, “We have channels to the military and to the opposition. Why don’t we use them? It may not be easy, because the Myanmar military want to hold on to power, but we have to convince and apply pressure.”

Since the coup, members of ASEAN have expressed different views on the crisis. Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and to a lesser extent the Philippines have sought to exert pressure on the regime, while Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have shown a willingness to work with it.

In any case, Thailand is a key neighbor of Myanmar and the appointment of Pornpimol could signal that Bangkok is looking to play along with like-minded actors on the complicated Myanmar issue. It will also be playing a key role in distributing humanitarian assistance from the US and other Western countries to Myanmar refugees on the border, as the violence continues to escalate across the frontier and Myanmar continues to descend into chaos and instability.

As it does, it appears likely from Don’s comments that he has entrusted Pornpimol to guide his ministry’s policies on Myanmar. 

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