People-to-people diplomacy a better fit

People-to-people diplomacy a better fit

Trucks loaded with relief items head from Mae Sot district in Tak province to a village on Myanmar's border on March 25.  TransborderNews
Trucks loaded with relief items head from Mae Sot district in Tak province to a village on Myanmar's border on March 25.  TransborderNews

A large crowd gathered near the 2nd Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in Mae Sot district on the morning of March 25 as the Thai government, through the Thai Red Cross Society and its Myanmar counterpart, released the first batch of humanitarian aid to those affected by fighting between Myanmar army and ethnic resistance forces.

Presiding over the handover ceremony was Thailand's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Sihasak Phuangketkeow. A group of Thai media was flown to the ceremony by the Thai army.

The aid is part of Thailand's initiative known as a humanitarian corridor. Witnessing the delivery were some key figures of the ethnic resistance forces. Yet, they were asked by the Thai security apparatus to remain low profile as the Thai authorities did not want to upset the junta or the State Administration Council (SAC).

The Thai army, as well as former PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, has been criticised for forging close ties with Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who staged a coup in 2021, ousting the civilian government under the National League for Democracy. However, some critics question if such ties would really serve the national interest, particularly when the ethnic forces have gained momentum over the weak Tatmadaw.

Some are wondering why the Thai army and security agencies still attach great importance to the junta regardless of the fact that most of the border extending over 2,400-plus kilometres is under the control of ethnic forces, including the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Mon, which have fought the Tatmadaw for a long time. Not to mention that many people living close to the border have relatives on the other side.

But continuing to be the junta's best friend may not be in Thailand's best interests due to the insecurity and conflict raging along the border.

Such a setback could be seen when the Thai government made little progress in its attempts to rescue a group of Thais being lured into online scam networks in Kokang's Laukkaing Township in Northern Shan State bordering China through Nay Pyi Taw. It's well known that the junta and the then-Laukkaing leaders were on good terms and shared benefits provided by Chinese mafias. Under such circumstances, the gangsters were one step ahead when Thai workers called for help

However, things changed remarkably in October of last year when the Chinese government shifted its support to ethnic forces in the northern part of Myanmar, known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance -- comprised of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Ta'ang National Liberation Army and Arakan Army --which conducted a successful offensive against the Tatmadaw in what was known as Operation 1027. The Brotherhood Alliance managed to seize Laukkaing and the surrounding areas, suppressing the Chinese mafias and freeing a large number of workers trapped in slave-like conditions.

The alliance attacked and seized several military bases in the north of Shan state. This enabled the Thai workers to escape. In other words, while the junta just watched on helplessly, it was the ethnic forces who helped the Thai workers so they could safely return to Thailand via boats along the Mekong River.

Now that the junta has lost power in several areas, keeping government-to-government alignment with Nay Pyi Taw and a friendship with Min Aung Hlaing may not be helpful in securing peace along the extensive border.

Thai and Myanmar government and Thai Red Cross Society officials at the second Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in Mae Sot district release the first batch of humanitarian aid for those affected by the conflict in Myanmar. Thailand's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Sihasak Phuangketkeow (far left) presided over the handover ceremony.

This is different to China which manages to pursue flexible "two-sided" diplomacy. On the one hand, Beijing remains close to the junta to help maintain its strategic interests, but on the other hand, it supports the ethnic forces to crush the mafia businesses, which have also landed some innocent Chinese citizens in trouble. With Chinese support, the ethnic forces have occupied a large area close to the Thai border in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.

While Beijing can have such an open operation, the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry and security agencies are overly careful in their humanitarian efforts. The trucks carrying food and necessities will not be able to reach KNU- and BGF-controlled areas without the resistance forces' consent.

This raises a question about the Thai government's perception of these ethnic states. By maintaining conventional diplomacy toward its neighbour, particularly the close alignment with the junta, and without recognising the importance of ethnic states, Thailand may have lost an opportunity to pursue its national interest.

The government may have to review its policies toward Myanmar and weigh between people-to-people ties and those at the top, which one really hopes leads to genuine, long-lasting security.

Paskorn Jumlongrach

Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th

Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th

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