Time for Myanmar aid, trade rethink?
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Time for Myanmar aid, trade rethink?

Soldiers and border patrol police guard the border in Sangkhla Buri district of Kanchanaburi province after fighting in Myanmar erupted on Friday, forcing more than 100 civilians to flee into Thailand. (Photo: Piyarach Chongcharoen)
Soldiers and border patrol police guard the border in Sangkhla Buri district of Kanchanaburi province after fighting in Myanmar erupted on Friday, forcing more than 100 civilians to flee into Thailand. (Photo: Piyarach Chongcharoen)

The Myanmar military's recent defeats in and around the border town of Myawaddy at the hands of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and pro-democracy resistance forces should serve as a wake-up call for Thailand.

Although remnant Myanmar military forces, apparently with support from the Karen National Army (KNA, formerly known as the Kayin State Border Guard Force), have reportedly retaken one of their bases on the Thai-Myanmar border, recent developments in different parts of the country point to the fact that the regime can no longer secure its frontiers. In recent months, troops have been surrendering or abandoning their posts in Shan and Kachin states, on the Chinese border, to Rakhine and Chin, on the Bangladesh and India borders, and most recently in Kayah and Kayin states, on the Thai border.

For Thailand, this means much of the 2,416-kilometre frontier it shares with Myanmar is now largely in the hands of opposition forces, and there is little prospect of the military recovering most of its lost territory. The picture is little better for the military in neighbouring Kayah State. There, the regime's forces have been pegged back to a few urban areas; armed groups such as the Karenni National Progressive Party and new resistance forces like the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force control the entire border, including the main crossings.

Rather than a successful junta counteroffensive, the most likely outcome is that anti-military forces will expand further into regime-controlled areas close to the border with Thailand, including in Kayin State and Tanintharyi Region. Although it retreated from downtown Myawaddy, the KNLA, the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), Myanmar's oldest ethnic armed group, has since seized another two military bases -- in Hpapun, to the north of Myawaddy, and near the border crossing of Htee Khee, in Tanintharyi Region.

The regime's territorial losses will inevitably change the nature of Thailand's engagement with Myanmar. Until the late 1980s, Thailand had close relationships with ethnic armed groups, which it saw as a buffer against a potentially dangerous neighbour. When Myanmar emerged from socialist rule in 1988, then-Thai prime minister general Chatichai Choonhavan announced a plan to turn "battlefields into marketplaces". Gradually, the focus has shifted to enhancing economic integration and minimising fighting in border areas. In the two decades to 2022, thanks to a more stable border, bilateral trade rose almost 500 per cent.

But whether Thailand likes it or not, war has returned to its borders. It now needs to adapt to the new, uncomfortable reality that Myanmar is fragmenting, with ethnic armed groups expanding their territory and influence as the regime weakens. Bangkok has little choice but to once again step up its engagement with ethnic armed groups along its borders, as well as with resistance forces born since the 2021 coup. It can do this in two important ways: aid and trade.

Just weeks before fighting escalated at Myawaddy, Thailand undertook a "humanitarian corridor" pilot project that saw aid delivered to around 20,000 people in Kayin State. The pilot was implemented in coordination with the regime, while ethnic armed groups were largely frozen out. The relief items were handed over by the Thai Red Cross to the Myanmar Red Cross Society -- which is not independent of the junta -- at the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge linking Mae Sot and Myawaddy.

The aid was then distributed in three villages, two of them under KNU control. However, the KNU was only consulted at the very last minute. Given the urgent needs in areas it controls, and not wanting to be seen as a spoiler of Bangkok's efforts, it grudgingly went along with the process -- even when Red Cross officials turned up with junta representatives at a village for an apparent photo op.

The military regime may have tried to take credit for aid reaching communities in this instance, but there is little doubt it is the cause of Myanmar's humanitarian crisis rather than the solution. Cutting off aid to areas controlled by ethnic armed groups has been part of the military's strategy for decades, and since the coup, Nay Pyi Taw has made it almost impossible for aid to reach conflict-affected areas through the UN-led system managed out of Yangon. Just as importantly, most communities will not trust a process that involves the Myanmar military.

If Bangkok is to scale up the humanitarian corridor with international support, as it has made clear it wants to, it will need to change its approach. The needs across the border are certainly massive: the UN estimates there are more than 560,000 displaced people across Kayin, Kayah and southern Shan states, as well as the Tanintharyi Region. They are suffering from shortages of food, shelter and even water, as well as health, education and other services. But funding is unlikely to come while the most important and credible aid delivery organisations in border areas – namely, ethnic armed groups and their administrations, border-based organisations, and a handful of international partners -- are left on the sidelines.

To reach more communities in need, Thailand should urgently launch a parallel track of its humanitarian corridor initiative, engaging ethnic armed groups and border-based humanitarian organisations to identify where needs are greatest and how they can best be met. A well-designed process that has buy-in from these key players -- and no role for the regime -- is likely to attract significant international support. Donors and humanitarian agencies have been searching for ways to get more aid into conflict-affected areas, but so far, only limited assistance has been delivered via the Thai-Myanmar border due to Bangkok's reticence.

That said, aid is only one part of the solution. Just as, if not more important, is the need to open more border crossings for local trade so that people and organisations in areas outside of Myanmar military control can access goods at reasonable prices. A March 2024 market analysis found that essential goods in southeastern Myanmar were 40 to 70 per cent more expensive than last year. This inflation is higher than in most parts of central Myanmar, reflecting conflict-related disruptions to trade.

Small formal and informal crossings between Thailand and border areas have helped to some extent, but Thai authorities have so far only allowed a limited amount of goods to go through. Opening these "temporary checkpoints" to greater volumes of basic essentials would help to bring prices down. As with aid delivery, this trade expansion will, however, require working with the local de facto authorities, namely ethnic armed groups and post-coup resistance forces.

Ultimately, it is in Thailand's interests to help stabilise and support communities in its border areas. If they are left to languish without the assistance and services they need, informal migration and refugee flows across the porous border are only likely to increase. The military's tenuous position at Myawaddy only underlines the urgency for Bangkok to adopt a new approach to the crisis in Myanmar -- one recognising that, like it or not, much of the country is no longer under regime control.

Thomas Kean is a former journalist and editor who lived in Yangon from 2007-21. He is the International Crisis Group's Senior Consultant on Myanmar and Bangladesh.

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