As the Thai-Myanmar border situation becomes ever more tense, with more fighting between the Myanmar military and ethnic groups, particularly the Karen National Union (KNU), Thailand is bracing for another humanitarian challenge.
Air strikes launched by the Tatmadaw on March 27 targeting KNU territory caused heavy casualties among unarmed civilians, resulting in an influx of Karen villagers who hoped to seek refuge in Mae Hong Son's Mae Sariang district. As Thai authorities slammed the door shut on them, the Karen had to cross back over the Salween River. Most, if not all, are now stranded in the jungle because they fear more attacks. Reports say food supplies have also run out.
A Karen woman in a location that has now been turned into a war zone said she had no time to bring food when, filled with fear, she fled her village. Pictures of stranded villagers with next to nothing to eat have triggered sympathy. But the air strikes are just a taste of what's to come. As armed ethnic factions prepare for a showdown, observers believe civil war is inevitable. If that is the case, more refugees will enter the kingdom. Given our porous borders, Thailand looks set to become the front-line state in taking care of those fleeing.
This week there were reports that the Thai government had set up two dozen reception centres in provinces sharing the border with Myanmar, including Ratchaburi, Mae Sot and Chiang Rai, with a combined capacity to hold about 40,000 refugees. Such a proactive plan deserves praise. But in order to reduce the burden on the Thai state, those within the government involved in humanitarian tasks must incorporate civic groups and non-governmental actors into these efforts. There have been complaints from civic groups and NGOs that local authorities barred them from border areas which meant they were unable to deliver food and necessities to those in need.
At the same time, the government has insisted that those who want to help must do so through local authorities even though there has been the impression that some officials are not so enthusiastic about their humanitarian assignments. Pictures showing the military blocking off an area with rows of barbed wire as Karen villagers approached last week drew international criticism.
Military to military ties have intensified public suspicions. Such feelings are to do with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's coup and many cannot help but believe he has sided with Myanmar's generals. A lack of trust in the military may be prompting activists to separate their humanitarian operations from that of the military's though it's understandable state authorities want to streamline humanitarian efforts.
The army has assigned the 36th Ranger Forces Regiment to deliver donations, including dried food and medicines, to those sheltering on the banks of the Salween River. But the authorities must not allow bureaucracy to obstruct humanitarian work. It would be better if they did more to engage activists, particularly those involved in healthcare, to help ease a burden that is only set to grow.
In recent history, Thailand gained world recognition in its humanitarian efforts by helping tens of thousands of Cambodians fleeing war and starvation during the 1970s. This led to the formation of three major refugee camps in Surin and Aranyaprathet district in Prachin Buri.
Of course, helping refugees is a tough job. But this is a moral obligation that cannot be avoided. Thailand must do its best to help.