Dealing with the crisis in Myanmar

Dealing with the crisis in Myanmar

Myanmar nationals protest outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok following the Feb 1, 2021 military coup that ousted the country's democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. (Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
Myanmar nationals protest outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok following the Feb 1, 2021 military coup that ousted the country's democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. (Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

Since Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin came to power, the country's profile has been raised regionally and internationally.

Mr Srettha's first trip overseas to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was widely applauded. His performance in New York will also serve as a barometer of how his government will engage with external partners in the years to come.

The prime minister told the UNGA that with his government, Thailand is marking a new chapter in the country's democracy. Whatever that is, the whole world will find out sooner rather than later.

But while he has outlined his government's major socio-economic policies and measures, which have broad public appeal, he has yet to spell out a clear strategy on how his government will deal with the Myanmar crisis, which is one of the most serious existential threats to Thailand's statehood as the turmoil nears its third anniversary.

A lack of comments by Mr Srettha and his Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara on the quagmire could mean that the existing policies on Myanmar will remain as is. Among Mr Parnpree's limited comments on the issue were those made in his first interview with Thai media, where he said Thailand would follow the Asean 5-Point Consensus while the country still has to resolve myriads of issues with Myanmar on a bilateral basis.

In recent months, the situation in Myanmar has drastically changed. After Asean leaders reviewed the situation in Myanmar and decided on the 19-point statement on Sept 5, some serious developments materialised. Such changes could end up affecting the goals and implementation of the Asean peace process.

During the Thai government's nearly three-month transitional period, there have been new developments inside Myanmar and among the resistance forces requiring the new Pheu Thai-led government to recalibrate its policies towards Myanmar.

Three important issues must be addressed: border management, engagement with the National Unity Government (NUG) in exile, and mitigating transborder issues.

Managing the porous 2,401-km border with Myanmar has been an assiduous task, even in peacetime. In the last eight months, Thai authorities have been dealing with the issue of Myanmar villagers fleeing across the border to avoid clashes between the Tatmadaw and armed ethnic groups and resistance forces.

As the Tatmadaw intensified airstrikes, resistance groups have fought back while also applying technology such as drones in their efforts. According to Thai intelligence agencies, clashes increased earlier this year, with 306 out of 330 districts in the country, including major cities like Mandalay and Yangon, affected.

Consequently, the junta decided in July to extend the 6-month emergency rule for another six months for the fourth time. The only place the military has not touched is Shan State, where the powerful Wa army is in control.

Amidst it all, Myanmar's National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) has had to reappraise the situation. According to several well-informed intelligence sources, Senior General Ming Aung Hlaing admitted that the regime can only control the situation in 139 out of 330 districts.

Martial law has also been imposed on seven key battleground areas in Sagaing, Pago, Mon, Karen, Kayah, Mogok, and Tanintharyi, which has done little to beef up the regime's security.

These intelligence sources believe the Tatmadaw will intensify its crackdown with more airstrikes to consolidate its territorial holdings.

It appears the Myanmar junta is focusing on winning the conflict inside its borders and less on trying to be presentable to its neighbours, not to mention the world. As part of this, the regime informed Asean colleagues that it would skip the Asean chair in 2026 due to domestic developments. This will be the second time that Myanmar has skipped the chair. The first was in 2005.

Under the Prayut government, Thailand has been very careful in engaging the NUG elements living abroad and illegally inside Thailand.

It must be said that after the February coup in 2021, many political activists fled to Thailand and used the country as transit to migrate to a third country.

At the recent Asean summit, the Indonesian chair told his Asean colleagues that the chair and its special envoys had engaged more than 110 times with all stakeholders, including NUG and ethnic armed organizations.

Meanwhile, some Thai military officials have also had secret meetings with NUG representatives.

In the past six months, Thailand has expressed serious concerns about increased arms smuggling across the Thai border. Amidst it all, resistance forces have employed drones (typically used for agriculture) on the battlefield, which have been bought from Thailand, resulting in the junta asking the Thai side to crack down on online drone purchases.

Meanwhile, the junta is building its forces and has initiated attacks along the Thai-Myanmar border provinces -- mainly Tak and Mae Hong Son.

Thailand also needs to handle migrant workers from Myanmar. Because of the need for imported labour, the country has to turn to Myanmar for additional workforce. At the moment, unofficial numbers of migrant workers from Myanmar are as high as 6.5 million.

Only 2 million-plus have been registered and given access to healthcare and social benefits. Since the current work permit, which has been extended twice, will last for only four years, millions of workers must return to Myanmar to renew their visas and work permits. To streamline and cut costs, Thailand has already asked Nay Pyi Taw for leeway so that all visas and work permits can be renewed at a border town instead. The Myanmar side has yet to respond.

In addition, the government and Naypyidaw are working together to develop financial regulations that will reduce the current illegal money transfer, known as Hundi, across the Thai-Myanmar. Each day, millions of dollars are being sent through this underground network.

Since the coup in February 2021, Myanmar's financial and banking system has been sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury.

The Myanmar-Thai border has also become more volatile because of the increased arms smuggling. Although several arms caches have been found and seized in various locations, the weapons that have slipped through official scrutiny are finding their way to various armed groups fighting the junta.

At the two informal meetings held in Bangkok and New Delhi with representatives from Myanmar and its neighbours last year, it was agreed that cooperation is needed to tackle cross-border illegal activities, including narcotics, people and arms smuggling. Of late, Thailand has also urged the Naypyidaw regime to crack down on scam call centres located along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

Do you like the content of this article?