Myanmar Crisis Poses Strategic Challenges for Thailand

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 31 May 2021

As COVID-19 cases in Thailand rise ahead of a slow vaccine roll-out, the Thai government is concentrating on domestic affairs, even as the conflict inside Myanmar intensifies, impacting the country’s security and socio-economic condition.

Thailand has maintained a low profile on the Myanmar crisis since the Feb. 1 coup for two principal reasons. One has been to support the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the role of the ASEAN chair. As the frontline state, Thailand has been careful not to use its national interests as a cover for the common ASEAN effort.

The second reason relates to domestic concerns as a result of the worsening COVID-19 situation. When the coup occurred, Thailand was well on the way to recovering from the second wave of infections that cropped up as 2020 ended. However, the discovery of a new cluster of cases in Bangkok a couple of months later upended the prospect of the country opening up early to welcome back much-needed tourists.

Since then, the popularity of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has plummeted as the prospect of a speedy economic recovery fades. Worse still, the longstanding plan of step-by-step inoculation for Thai citizens has had to be reset after a public outcry over its slow speed and political wrangling.

The junta’s coup was an unexpected development for Bangkok. Truth be told, a few days prior to the putsch, Thai military leaders were confident that the protagonists—Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing—had already struck a deal and agreed to move on. A contingency plan in case the talks failed was not in their minds. That explains why, within 36 hours of the military takeover, coup leader Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing wrote a personal letter to Prayuth asking for the Thai government’s support.

Over the past four months, Thailand has been preoccupied with three strategic issues in dealing with the new crisis in Myanmar: the surge of COVID-19 infections among Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand, managing the volatile Thai-Myanmar border and engaging with Myanmar ethnic minorities living in Thailand. Due to the sensitivity and discreet manner of the Thai government’s dealings with the new regime, harsh criticisms were directed at Prayuth and his military ties with Myanmar. Absurd as it may sound, some political pundits even believed that he gave the green light for the coup.

First of all, due to the surge in coronavirus infections in early December among Myanmar migrant workers in the Thai seafood industry, the Thai government had to come up with new plans to mitigate the spread of the virus among the workforce. In Samut Sakhon alone, as of December, there were an estimated 230,000 Myanmar migrants. The plan at the time was to selectively test high-risk groups. Those who tested positive would be isolated and quarantined. Their numbers were small and manageable enough that local authorities were confident that they had the surge under control. But that was not the case, as the numbers of infected workers continued to rise.

Meanwhile, along the porous Thai-Myanmar border, illegal entries by Myanmar citizens have increased dramatically in the past five weeks, as junta forces battle ethnic armed groups close to the frontier.

At the same time, Myanmar’s public healthcare system broke down after the coup and became dysfunctional as thousands of healthcare workers joined the civil disobedience movement.

Nobody knows exactly how many of Myanmar’s citizens have been vaccinated or tested. There are estimated to be around three million migrant workers from Myanmar residing in various parts of Thailand. Approximately 2.45 million are registered and eligible for medical care and other rights, while the rest are illegal and fear being caught and deported if they visit hospitals or go for testing.

The second strategic challenge are the displaced people from Myanmar living in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar frontier, some of whom have been in those camps for 30 years. A total of 91,795 people are resident in the camps, according to NGO The Border Consortium. The Thai government fears that ongoing fighting inside Myanmar will cause a new influx into Thailand of displaced people fleeing conflict.

Last month, both Prayuth and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai fervently pledged to the United Nations Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, that Thailand would not push back villagers fleeing conflict zones. Earlier, in the days following the coup, there were widespread if misleading reports that Thailand would not allow people fleeing conflict to cross the frontier.

Before the pandemic, Bangkok and Naypyidaw were able to repatriate several hundred displaced people to Myanmar. When the situation has calmed down, Thailand would like to jump start the resettlement program again. Two weeks ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees resettled 12 persons from the Mae La refugee camp to Canada.

There have been requests by international organisations, including the United Nations, for Thailand to build additional camps along the Thai-Myanmar border to deal with any future influx of refugees. In response, Thailand reiterated its commitment to set up temporary holding shelters for newcomers for humanitarian reasons. Thailand is concerned that if new influxes do occur, they could overwhelm the country’s existing facilities for displaced persons.

Finally, with large communities of Karen, Shan and Mon ethnic minorities comprising much of Myanmar’s workforce in Thailand, the moral and financial support from these communities to their compatriots across the border has become a new headache for the Thai government. In normal times such cross-border exchanges, especially trade and financial transactions, would be highly encouraged.

With digital technology ubiquitous, crowd funding from the various Myanmar ethnic minority diasporas around the world, as well as direct assistance from their families and friends living in Thailand, is helping to fund the civil disobedience movement and ethnic armed organisations in their fight against the military regime.

Beginning last week, Army Regions 3 and 4 are working together to tighten up border controls in Ranong in southern Thailand and Mae Sot in western Thailand. Both areas share porous borders with Myanmar and are home to huge ethnic minority communities.

At this juncture, as the ASEAN chair is finalizing the timelines and operational frameworks to implement the five-point consensus agreed on 24 April, Thailand will remain behind the scenes. But once the ASEAN team is on the ground along with a clear mandate, Thailand will be at the forefront in assisting the overall ASEAN efforts.

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