Since the political turmoil in Myanmar unfolded two years ago, the resulting catastrophe has remained largely contained within its border. However, recent developments have shown the crisis is now just around the corner, and as such, the Thai government's inaction, as well as the wider Asean community's lack of real sanctions, risks being interpreted as complicity with the junta in Nay Pyi Taw.
Over the past couple of days, Thai social media has been ablaze with reports about the arrest of Thaw Nandar Aung, also known as Han Lay, at Suvarnabhumi airport over supposed "irregularities" surrounding her travel documents. Netizens feared Han Lay -- who was caught in the junta's crosshairs when she spoke out against the coup against Aung San Suu Kyi's elected civilian government as Miss Grand International Myanmar 2020 -- would be deported to Myanmar, where she faces certain arrest, if not death, over her public criticism of the Burmese junta.
The former beauty queen had been living in Thailand on a tourist visa, extending it every two months to legally remain in the country while her asylum claim in Canada is reportedly being processed. However, once she reached the allowable limit of in-country extensions, she flew to Da Nang in Vietnam on a visa run.
Upon returning to Suvarnabhumi airport on Thursday, she was detained by immigration authorities, who cited irregularities with her passport in denying her entry. While Myanmar authorities have yet to weigh in on what the supposed irregularity was, it is widely assumed her passport has been revoked -- considering the involvement of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.
Fortunately, speaking to the Bangkok Post, Han Lay said she no longer faces deportation to Myanmar, though the timeline for her release remains unclear. That said, this supposed show of goodwill is not enough. Thailand has to take urgent steps to ensure Han Lay, who has legitimate reason to seek asylum outside Myanmar, is freed.
By keeping her in detention and barring her from exercising her rights to political expression, Thai authorities have essentially turned Suvarnabhumi airport into an extension of the notorious Insein prison, where Myanmar keeps its political detainees.
This isn't the first time Thai authorities have allowed the Myanmar junta to get away with things at the expense of its own public image. Back in June, a MiG-29 belonging to the Myanmar Air Force strayed 5 kilometres into Tak's Phop Phra district, with reports saying the jet was providing aerial support to ground forces fighting Karen rebels entrenched along the Thai border.
The incident resulted in nothing more than a mild protest from the government, with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha even quoted of saying that it was "not a big deal".
More recently last month, a group of "monks" who were believed to be spies working for the Myanmar military were arrested in Tak. The fact that foreign military operatives were carrying out clandestine operations in Thai sovereign territory resulted in nothing but a whimper from the government. Why? The modern state of Myanmar has been embroiled in turmoil since the early days of its founding, and since then Thailand has had to tread a careful line when it comes to its restive neighbour.
Given its geographical proximity, Thailand has the unique advantage of being able to directly engage with the regime next door, regardless how isolated from the wider international community it is. While this has proved to be valuable -- for instance, Thailand was among the few states able to quickly send aid to Myanmar when it was hit by Cyclone Nargis -- it comes with some drawbacks.
For one, it has often forced the government to moderate its criticism on issues pertaining to Myanmar, sometimes at the expense of the kingdom's image. Recent developments suggest the government has been doing more than just hold back its tongue -- so the time is ripe for Thailand to review its position of strategic ambiguity, as the Myanmar junta has shown that it is unwilling to work towards a common goal.
Asean, for its part, needs to do more than gather every now and then to condemn atrocities carried out on a regular basis under the Myanmar junta. Often jokingly referred to as the record-holder for holding the most meetings in a calendar year, Asean has failed to come up with a united action beyond disinviting Nay Pyi Taw from their summits.
Last week, an airstrike hit a school in Myanmar's Sagaing region, killing 11 students. One would have thought it would the perfect time to perform the regular sing-and-dance which usually follows a tragic event, but the tragedy was met with silence from Asean. For a bloc which claims to want to be at the centre of all things Southeast Asian, what was the hold-up? Perhaps Asean realises that it is done with the same old, tired performance. Thailand should do the same and start engaging with Myanmar in a more meaningful way.