While Thailand’s political machinery and personnel are now gearing up for the upcoming election, there is a humanitarian crisis in waiting on the western border. Politicians have so far turned a blind eye.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and the coup in Myanmar in February 2021, the un-demarcated 2,401-km common border had been manageable and relatively calm. However, in the coming months, the frontier could become the country’s biggest time bomb. All it needs is a small spark, which is unfortunately outside of Bangkok’s control.
A recent assessment by the Thai security agencies of the country’s border situation with Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar concluded that the Thai-Myanmar side is the most vulnerable. Other border areas do not face the immediate disruption of the border administration’s capacity as there is no possible influx of asylum seekers in the near term which could cause a dramatic humanitarian crisis.
For instance, the border with Cambodia used to be the country’s No. 1 concern due to illegal migrant workers when bilateral ties were at a low ebb. Now thanks to Cambodia’s stability and its excellent relationship with Thailand, the government-to-government deal on migrant workers has proved useful. Before the outbreak, nearly 50,000 Cambodians were working in the country legally.
However, in the case of the Thai-Myanmar border, although there is a similar arrangement for migrant workers, it does not work very well. The sheer number of people wanting to cross the border is 20-fold that on the Cambodian side, in particular over the past 23 months. Two interrelated issues can be discerned here: the ever-increasing number of illegal border crossings through natural channels with a myriad of well-connected human smuggling rings, and insufficient preparedness on the Thai side to handle the sudden massive influx of villagers across the border in the coming dry season. Currently, only six border checkpoints are in operation.
More than the Thai authorities would like to admit, the constant influx of new arrivals has already caused a strain on the provincial health system, which still has to fight the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other contagious diseases such as malaria. At the moment, at least 250,000-300,000 Myanmar people from all parts of the country are congregating along the Thai-Myanmar border, which is mostly under the control of ethnic armed groups.
For the time being, most of them are eking out a meager living, waiting for their turn and fortune to cross the border for jobs and life security. For the well-to-do, they can easily find places in cities of their choice across the border.
With the new ASEAN chairman, Indonesia, taking over next month, anxiety and uncertainty are increasing among Myanmar people residing along the border. Given the long-standing history of Indonesia’s tough stance on Myanmar, there could be shifts in ASEAN’s strategies towards the military junta, officially known as the State Administration Council. If there are further push-backs by the junta against the border areas, these groups of people will likely panic and attempt to cross the border no matter what the risk is.
As a temporary measure over the years, the Thai government has thrice extended the period for Myanmar migrant workers to obtain legal work permits. But due to heavy bureaucratic procedures and extensive local corruption, a large number of potential migrant workers have still been unable to be properly processed and get their permits. Thailand still urgently needs at least 600,000 workers to ramp up its economy in the post-pandemic era.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha must rectify this problem without delay. It has to be said that Interior Minister General Anupong Paojinda must be held responsible for his team’s slow actions in implementing the 20-year National Strategic Plan related to good governance principles and cooperation with civil society organizations to ensure peace and stability in neighboring countries.
Given the current circumstances on the western frontier, Thailand needs to overhaul its national security approach. Due to past enmity between Thailand and Myanmar, hard security has been the only approach even though the context and scope of the present security ecosystem have already changed.
Thailand’s biggest threat today comes from the lack of human security among the Myanmar people living across the border. For decades since independence, Myanmar’s governments have been fighting ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). In the past, Thailand backed the EAOs to shield the country from the hostile Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military). However, this security template has now changed completely. Ties with Myanmar have been normalized gradually since 2011 with both civilian and military governments. Thailand and Myanmar now have stable relations and functional cooperation. Relations with the EAOs are cordial as Thailand maintains good ties with them, especially those bordering Thailand.
Although efforts have been made to provide humanitarian assistance to needy persons across the border through the Thai Red Cross Society and provincial grassroots groups, this has been done sporadically, perhaps given a lack of systematic or long-term strategic thinking. The Prayut government must now ensure that people across the border receive timely and sufficient humanitarian and emergency assistance so that they can remain inside Myanmar.
When normalcy resumes, they can return to their homes without difficulty. Thailand must be firm in pursuing this approach. After all, Thailand has the capacity and a convincing level of power to ensure that people living across the border can stay safe and healthy. That way, Thailand and the international community will have one less problem to deal with.
On a positive note, something unique is happening: a sudden boom in SME businesses in the border areas, especially Mae Sot, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, by Myanmar entrepreneurs. After the coup, the economic conditions inside Myanmar deteriorated to the point that the country’s middle class were slowly leaving the country. In the past, they used to stay and try their luck rather than face any unpredictable risks outside. However, these days Myanmar’s middle classes see their future risks clearly and they are coming to the border zones with the hope of crossing to Thailand. Unlike those fleeing the military regime in 1988, those who make it are better educated, more cosmopolitan, and entrepreneurial.
One of the most visible signs has been the mushrooming of Myanmar-style tea salons catering to both local Thais and their own people. In Mae Sot alone, more than two dozen tea rooms of various sizes and decorative styles are doing brisk business. The same holds true for Chiang Mai and other border areas. Some of the new arrivals are professional people such as doctors and nurses, technicians, and engineers. They must be allowed to use their skills in whatever form. Prayut and Anupong must understand this new dynamic and help them.
If the government continues its “business as usual” approach to the current management of border affairs and immigration procedures, Thailand will soon face the region’s largest human security dilemma since the Vietnam war. In the late 1970s, when Thailand experienced a refugee crisis on its eastern front, the government of the day with the full cooperation of an enthusiastic and unified international community could cope with the humanitarian crisis in a more effective way. However, today with the Ukraine war continuing, global attention and resources are zeroed in on Europe’s conflict.
However, the current situation along the western border with Myanmar will become more volatile as the Myanmar crisis is gaining renewed focus from the new ASEAN chair, Indonesia, and more enthusiastic Western countries, which are eager to punish the military junta for its brutality against its own people. In recent days, global headlines have focused on the lives of seven students who were sentenced to death by the military regime.
Under these new circumstances, Thailand needs to tighten intra-agency coordination and cooperation and forge proactive policies against the above headwinds otherwise there will be a “human security” catastrophe on the western border.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.