Preventing a proxy war in Myanmar
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Preventing a proxy war in Myanmar

Protesters march in May last year supporting the opposition National Unity Government during a demonstration against the coup in Hpakant in Myanmar's Kachin state. There is a high risk that external powers might want to take advantage of the situation inside Myanmar. (Photo: AFP)
Protesters march in May last year supporting the opposition National Unity Government during a demonstration against the coup in Hpakant in Myanmar's Kachin state. There is a high risk that external powers might want to take advantage of the situation inside Myanmar. (Photo: AFP)

While it still can, Asean must prevent a proxy war in Myanmar.

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine provides vivid and valuable lessons for all members of the Asean family that if they are not able to work closely together and work out durable solutions, others could take the liberty of inviting themselves into the fray.

For proof, simply watch the flurry of diplomatic exchanges between all concerned parties about the true nature of the Ukrainian conflict. Should or shouldn't the concerned parties in the US and Europe get into the fight? The exchanges ended with more lethal arms on the ground. It's like watching a Hollywood film with the battle scenes inside Ukraine. Civilians are being killed and uprooted from their homes, not in their thousands or even tens of thousands. We are talking about well over 3.2 million refugees in three weeks, an unprecedented event.

Back to the region with the countries sharing borders with Myanmar, namely China, India, Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand. All have to shoulder the spill-over effects from the coup in February last year. For Thailand, with its own current political challenges, the Myanmar crisis has driven the Prayut government to the edge of the precipice.

News from the Thai-Myanmar border during the dry season has been dominating the media's headlines due to the continued fighting, and for good reason. Of all the countries that share a border with Myanmar, Thailand has the longest and most non-demarcated, spanning 2,401 kilometres. Over the past decades, it has been the major source of human and drug smuggling due to the abundant "natural channels". During this dry seasons military offensive, arms smuggling along the border has also increased.

In the past few months, Thai border patrol police have seized caches of war weapons of various sizes, including 33 M-16 and AK47 assault rifles, M-79 grenade launchers and PK general-purpose machine-guns, as well as large amounts of ammunition.

The Thai security apparatus is concerned about covert and overt actions, which have involved foreign elements, that have appeared along the porous border areas, which are now under the control of various ethnic armed groups. Some of them have focused on training youngsters who escaped prosecution by the Tatmadaw. These are member of the People's Defence Forces (PDF). Quite a few proudly show their photos on social media. If this trend continues unabated, the resistance war could widen and might subsequently lead to escalation involving a clandestine foreign security presence.

As far as Thailand is concerned, the Third Army Region has been instructed to tighten security along the border, especially in Kanchanaburi and Rayong provinces, where several arms caches were seized since last December. With the intensified fighting in the North and Northwest, the Thai authorities are concerned that more internally displaced persons could move toward the Southeast along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Given the trajectory of global politics due to the growing acrimony between West and East, small countries and regional organisations such as Asean must be prepared for the unintended consequences resulting from the Russia-Ukraine war. From the current situation, it is obvious that superpowers today do not want to engage in direct conflict but they would rather employ various non-military tools to wage war using the ubiquitous digital and drone technologies that allow them to fight all forms of wars without boots on the ground. However, if it is necessary, they will use other people's boots, not theirs.

At this juncture, it is possible the four-week Russian-Ukraine war could end in the coming days if both sides can guarantee mutual security demands. The region must learn from this conflict as real Russian roulette is being played out in the European theatre for all to see. Asean must be prepared to respond to the fast-changing strategic and disruptive environment. The conflict's impacts have already hit everybody's lives over here.

Southeast Asian countries are fortunate as they have gone through different phases of conflicts, both big and small, in the past five decades. Now all of them are living under the same roof and enjoy a peaceful existence. Lest we forget, the region is the world's most diverse -- in economic, political, historical and religious terms. It is also home to the some of the world's largest numbers of followers of Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. This diversity is a great asset as it has allowed all countries to learn from each other and coexist.

The best way to prevent any proxy war in Myanmar is to make sure that Asean's five-point consensus (5PC) is being implemented so that the regime can be brought back to the Asean family. This week, Asean special envoy Prak Sokhonn, is visiting Nay Pyi Taw to meet up with stakeholders. Unfortunately, this time around it will not include the members of the National Unity Government (NUG). Inclusive dialogue with all parties will take time due to the tough line being taken by the SAC and the resistance groups. Given the current health and economic crisis, it is hoped that some pause in the hostilities is possible during the upcoming Thingyan Festival (Myanmar's traditional new year) to allow humanitarian aid to be sent into most affected areas.

Myanmar must not be further isolated despite the regime's brutality. Since last February, the SAC has committed heinous crimes against Myanmar's people and both the international community and Asean have reprimanded the regime. The West has imposed targeted sanctions against key leaders and state-owned firms. However, by continuing to leave the military regime out in the cold, there is a high risk that some external powers might want to take advantage of the situation inside Myanmar, and this, in the long run, could attract opposing forces and lead to the plight seen in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya.

Asean must use all available means -- peer pressure from Asean and dialogue partners and carrots and sticks -- to persuade Myanmar to implement the 5PC. Prak Sokhonn's visit is a good start. Given the dire economic situation confronting the world due to the Russia-Ukraine war, Myanmar's economy will be hardest hit. The faster the regime follows the Asean peace plan, the better chance of a return to the family and normalcy.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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