Myanmar still a   ticking time bomb
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Myanmar still a   ticking time bomb

In the three years following the Feb 1 coup in Myanmar, the situation in the country has gone from bad to hellish. In fact, the situation has deteriorated so much that Thailand has no option but to start taking proactive steps to prepare for an imminent humanitarian crisis.

What began as a largely urban political protest over the military's seizure of power from the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has turned into nationwide chaos in a relatively short amount of time, with armed ethnic rebels taking advantage of the situation to seize chunks of the country from the junta's control with little to no resistance.

In the west, the Arakan Army has launched multiple offensives against the Myanmar military in Rakhine state, displacing over 26,000 people, in addition to the Rohingya who were displaced by earlier bouts of violence. Rakhine's capital, Sittwe, remains under government control, but given how quickly Pauktaw in Rakhine state changed hands over the past couple of days, their hold on the state is shaky at best.

In northwestern Chin state, meanwhile, rebels from the Chin National Front have sent junta soldiers fleeing into India's Mizoram state as they try to take control of the porous border region, raising alarm in New Delhi after dozens surrendered to Indian authorities.

On the opposite side, in the northeast Shan state, through which are vital trade routes to China, militias from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta'ang National Liberation Army have captured dozens of military outposts in an offensive which has displaced over 50,000 people.

Considering about 40% of Myanmar's $52.3 billion border trade goes through checkpoints in Shan state, losing control of the state could prove disastrous to the economy -- prompting President Myint Swe to warn the country risks becoming "split" if the military "does not effectively manage the incidents in the border regions", as reported by the junta-linked Global New Light of Myanmar.

When a person whose sole job is to make the junta look good has no option but to issue the junta a warning, it could only mean a crackdown is looming. In the end, the losers will be hundreds of thousands of civilians who will be displaced as the conflict spreads.

Beyond Myanmar, China has expressed concern about the deteriorating situation along the border, going as far as sending Assistant Foreign Minister Nong Rong to get assurances from the government that Beijing's investments will remain safe. Following the visit, Beijing urged Myanmar to "cooperate" with Chinese authorities to maintain border security, signalling its readiness to be the senior partner in this mission.

Thailand's attitude towards the conflict, however, seems to be changing over time.

Under Prayut Chan-o-cha, the government was more than keen to cosy up to the junta in Nay Pyi Taw. Thailand was the first country to send an official to Myanmar following the coup, legitimising the junta despite widespread international condemnation for their takeover.

As other Southeast Asian countries banded together under Asean's banner to bring Myanmar back on track, Thailand under Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai went against the grain and launched direct talks with the junta -- undermining the bloc's peace efforts and unanimity. When Myanmar jets strayed into Thai territory on several occasions as they carried out strikes against rebel targets, the government quickly brushed it off, downplaying it as if it wasn't a territorial incursion by another state.

Meanwhile, under PM Srettha Thavisin, it is clear the government is deliberately keeping Myanmar, or anything Myanmar-related for that matter, at arm's length. Take, for instance, the effort to repatriate the 200-plus Thais who were trafficked by human smuggling rings into Myanmar.

Since their plight came to light in early October, they haven't been able to return despite being a stone's throw away from the border. Without a doubt, fierce fighting on the ground will complicate any evacuation effort -- but the fact the government was able to repatriate its citizens from Israel with relatively little difficulty speaks volumes to the state of cooperation between Bangkok and Nay Pyi Taw.

Perhaps the Srettha administration wants to distance itself from the Myanmar junta -- and rightly so, as unlike the Prayut administration, it does not need Nay Pyi Taw to legitimise its position. But keeping a safe distance does not mean it could pretend the problem doesn't exist.

The fact of the matter remains: Thailand shares a long border with Myanmar, and when things go upside down over there, where would the displaced go but here in Thailand, where there is already an established population of displaced people from across Myanmar?

The time has come for the government to realise that Myanmar is not a simmering cauldron, but a ticking time bomb. It must bolster Asean's efforts to bring all parties in the conflict back to the negotiating table, or the region's fragile peace may be at risk.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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