Thailand's regional security makeover

Thailand's regional security makeover

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin examines a fish at Betong Tilapia farm, during his visit to Yala province on Feb 29. (Photo: Government House)
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin examines a fish at Betong Tilapia farm, during his visit to Yala province on Feb 29. (Photo: Government House)

After more than six months in power, border security-related issues have emerged as the Srettha government's non-economic top priority.

Compared to the previous administration, border security efforts have a higher level of urgency, with much of it on display on all media platforms 24/7.

As Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin continues to pitch the country as a global industrial hub for a number of sectors, the Thai security apparatus is also busy trying to manage perceived threats that could undermine the country's new development goals.

But it must be said that the new government has shown a lukewarm attitude toward the National Strategy: 2018-2037 and other national security and defence action plans drawn up by the National Security Council (NSC).

Instead, the Pheu Thai-led government has preferred a personalised approach, as famously practised by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who remains extremely influential in the government's policy decisions.

Thailand has land and maritime borders with seven countries in the region, namely India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Luckily, at this juncture, these neighbouring countries have good relations with Thailand that have prevented any possible flare-up over border disputes.

Lest we forget, in past decades, Thailand has had violent skirmishes with Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar over border demarcation lines, which are twisted legacies leftover from colonialism.

Currently, the government is moving quickly on dual fronts -- in the country's southern and western flanks.

For the South, especially the deep South, Mr Srettha made his presence felt last week with a visit that surprised and delighted local people.

His main objective is to create a positive atmosphere for the deep South's economic potential.

Since early February, a new peace negotiating team under Chatchai Bangchuad, secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC), has grabbed national headlines over ceasefire talks.

The NSC is in the process of finalising the Joint Comprehensive Plan Towards Peace (JCPP) with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).

The peace roadmap, which was leaked to the press, has been widely discussed among security experts and agencies.

Evidently, there are areas for improvement to which both sides need to pay attention, especially on conditions for a ceasefire and what would follow.

Otherwise, critics say it would not be productive to push through the plan, which lacks community consultations and support in the Deep South.

Malaysia, which is serving as a facilitator, must also play an honest role in this bid to all levels of violence and armed conflict.

The Srettha government is eager and determined to sign the roadmap to ensure that its future economic plans involving infrastructure in the South, among them the Land Bridge project, can proceed.

Since 2004, the conflicts in the deep South have exacerbated and become the main factor pushing back foreign investment and other development plans throughout the 14 southern provinces.

Moving up to the western flank with Myanmar, the government's initiative to jump-start a humanitarian corridor between Thailand and Myanmar at Mae Sot and Myawaddy is about to start with the procurement of essential relief items and coordinating efforts in place.

Last month, the government set up a new national committee on Myanmar tasked with two primary roles -- monitoring the ongoing crisis and preparing contingency plans as needed.

The international community is also watching whether this pilot project to assist 20,000 displaced villagers who fled the conflict in Myanmar to live on Thai soil will work.

Government spokesperson Chai Watcharonke recently said implementing the Asean five-point consensus and the existing policy called "D4D" will be a priority of the government's western security border. The "D4D" stands for; de-escalate violence, deliver humanitarian aid, release detainees, and dialogue. Moreover, it is also the Asean approach to engage all stakeholders in the conflict. Last weekend, for the first time, the parliament held a two-day conference on the Myanmar issue.

The forum was spearheaded by the Move Forward Party as party-list MP Rome Rangsiman is head of the Lower House's committee on national security. The forum invited speakers from abroad and the NUG, ethnic armed organisations and exiled media.

The humanitarian corridor has been supported by Asean and its dialogue partners. In recent discussions between Thailand with key regional players and the West, including the US and EU, they have also committed financial assistance to future aid plans.

However, in recent weeks, the proposed plan has faced severe criticism from the anti-junta groups especially the National Unity Government, which have equivocally stated that the military regime will be the biggest beneficiary of this effort.

Now, it is incumbent on Thailand and Myanmar, through their respective Red Cross Society, that its bilateral aid play works out.

They must ensure that the distribution of relief aid to targeted groups is non-discriminatory, credible, and transparent. The Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Management will oversee and follow up on this operation.

Over to the eastern border, unexpectedly, like a thunderclap on a mid-afternoon summer day, former Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen's visited to his lifelong friend, convicted former PM Thaksin Shinawatra on Feb 21 and immediately changed the dynamics of the much-improved relations.

The following days saw widespread speculation that the two were about to forge common deals involving the future of overlapping maritime areas in the Gulf of Thailand.

In the past decade, Thai-Cambodia relations have improved markedly, leading to increased economic activities and developmental cooperation, including border trade and tourism, which has further deepened cross-border ties.

While the Hun Sen-Thaksin nexus could be a valuable asset to further bolster what has been trouble-riddled ties, some quarters in Thailand have expressed grave concern as to their ultimate goals.

If both men overplay the affinity involving sovereignty and national interests, it could lead to a public backlash on both sides. Valuable lessons can be drawn from recent history and experiences when the two countries touched on sensitive border issues.

Meanhwile, the Thai-Lao border is calm with both governments trying to determine their exact borderline to complete decade-old demarcation efforts due to the ever-changing river flows which affect the watershed.

During his most recent visit to Vientiane, Mr Srettha pledged to provide development assistance to Laos, especially in the connectivity sector and border trade. Thailand also strongly supports the current Lao chairmanship of Asean.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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