For centuries, Thailand had informal relations with communities along its borders. These have included armed groups and their political wings. Thailand has received refugees for decades from regional wars and civilian victims from Myanmar.
During the Cold War, the Thai security authorities turned a blind eye towards, and sometimes quietly supported, insurgent groups in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Since the late 1990s though, Thailand has pursued a regional policy of turning battlefields into marketplaces.
Former Thai prime minister and architect of the victory against communism, the late General Chatchai Choohaven, built a mercantilist foreign policy which saw Bangkok establish constructive relationships with internationally recognized governments in neighboring countries. Regional elites have sometimes combined business interests with astute geopolitical balancing.
This policy has been relatively successful for Thai relations with Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos – and it seemed to be paying off in Myanmar. But no longer.
Thailand has security interests with Myanmar which are not necessarily shared by international partners.
It needs pragmatic policies for Myanmar, which work in the interests of national, economic and social security.
Before the coup, it was reasonable for Thailand to pursue regular bilateral relations with Myanmar. With both countries in ASEAN, the relationship was arguably less problematic than at any time since the Second World War and there was less armed conflict along the border.
All of this changed after the 2021 coup. Key victims were the minority communities internally displaced 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 mostly ethnic minority refugees.
Myanmar’s junta is widely regarded as illegitimate and illegal.
More than 2,000 citizens have been killed by the regime plus untold numbers in ethnic minority areas, caught up in the renewed civil wars.
In almost all 320 townships, people’s defense forces (PDFs) have emerged. These are diverse with some aligned to the civilian National Unity Government, some working with long-established ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and others operating independently.
Around 12 EAOs control significant amounts of territory and provide administration and other services to large populations.
Major groups include the Karen National Union, New Mon State Party, Karenni Nationalities Progressive Party (KNPP) and Restoration Council of Shan State. They have extensive governance systems and deliver health, education and other services, which are often the only assistance available to vulnerable and displaced communities. This is extremely important for Thailand.
Options amid uncertainty
Covid has shown how vulnerable the world is to diseases. Such threats are likely to increase in the context of climate change. Thailand has legitimate concerns that regional conflicts could have negative impacts 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 has failed to suppress dissent and consolidate power. It controls key towns and cities and large rural stretches. But the regime has lost its grip on large areas and is using battlefield weapons and airstrikes against civilians.
Some EAOs and their poorly armed PDF allies have pushed the junta back.
Large areas of Kayah State are controlled by the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force and KNPP.
In Sagaing and Magwe regions, PDFs hold territory despite junta onslaughts. Although the numbers are disputed, resistance groups claim to have killed thousands of soldiers.
At least 3,000 troops and many hundreds of police officers have defected.
Myanmar’s air force attacks civilians and its jets encroached upon Phop Phra district in the Thai province of Tak earlier this month. Thailand continues to suffer from the junta’s appalling mistreatment of citizens, which drives further refugees across the border.
It seems likely that the conflicts in Myanmar will drag on for some time.
There is much passion among the opposition, especially younger people, and it is impossible to see the PDFs and EAOs surrendering or being defeated.
Neither side is willing or able to negotiate. Even if junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was replaced, it is unlikely the regime would be willing to lose face by relinquishing power.
Min Aung Hlaing may force “elections” in August 2023. However, voting will be impossible across huge swathes of the country and the polls will lack all legitimacy and credibility.
Myanmar has returned 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 regime in Naypyidaw. It might be better to resume its buffer-zone policy. Under this system of patronage, Thailand would informally support para-state entities, under the authority of the EAOs, as border partners.
The EAOs could cooperate in mitigating 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 benefit greatly.
Joint commercial activities are feasible and could be mutually beneficial.
Such a rethink would not require Thailand to formally change existing policies. Engagement with the junta would no doubt continue, perhaps at a more cautious diplomatic level, reflecting the regime’s shameful abuse of ASEAN. Relations with the EAOs and other groups could remain informal.
For centuries it has been in the interests of Thailand to cultivate constructive relations with the communities which 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 provision with a large proportion 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 has merely to open the door.
Thailand has a long-standing Buddhist humanitarian tradition, which has included protecting vulnerable people from Myanmar. Thailand has an opportunity to rebuild its image among the young people who are Myanmar’s future leaders.
In supporting them now, Thailand will be investing in relationships that could last for decades.
Such a strategy need not be costly. By allowing organizations to help people in the border areas, Thailand can help ensure their good health and security. This will significantly mitigate the impact on Thailand of armed conflict in Myanmar.