Thailand recharges Myanmar policy
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Thailand recharges Myanmar policy

In this March 30, 2021 shot, an injured Myanmar refugee is being put on a stretcher before being transported to a hospital in Mae Sam Lap, after crossing the Salween River from the Myanmar side. He was fleeing air strikes in Myanmar's eastern Karen state following the February military coup that year. AFP
In this March 30, 2021 shot, an injured Myanmar refugee is being put on a stretcher before being transported to a hospital in Mae Sam Lap, after crossing the Salween River from the Myanmar side. He was fleeing air strikes in Myanmar's eastern Karen state following the February military coup that year. AFP

At his first press briefing on Friday, Foreign Minister Maris Sangiampongsa spoke at length about Thai foreign policy under his stewardship. He covered the whole gamut of revitalised diplomatic paths the country is on and will be making in a 43-slide PowerPoint presentation.

All diplomatic tenets, both internally and internationally, and their intrinsic linkages were touched upon. In a nutshell, what he wanted to say was: that good domestic policies are good foreign policies as they are intertwined.

Since he took over the top job at the Saranrom Palace on April 30, one frequently asked question over the past month and a half has been about policy towards neighbouring countries.

At the meeting, he reiterated that Myanmar is the top priority due to a myriad of bilateral issues that affect Thailand.

He then outlined a five-point policy approach that reaffirms the continuity of Thailand's ongoing engagement with Myanmar.

In the coming weeks and months, the Myanmar crisis will serve as a barometer of the quality and professionalism of his leadership.

The first priority, he stressed, is to maintain stability and peace along the Thai-Myanmar border due to its impact on the country and the region.

Cross-border issues with Myanmar will be high on the agenda as Thailand and its Asean colleagues continue to search for a solution that's acceptable to all stakeholders.

Meanwhile, as the country that shares the longest border with Myanmar, Thailand must bear the brunt of the consequences of what is going on inside its western neighbour -- casualties of war, displaced persons, narcotics, health security, and scam call centres, among other things.

Since last October and the start of the coordinated offensive by resistance forces, the situation along the porous Thai-Myanmar border has been stressful for the country's economy and security. Today, Thailand must shoulder thousands of displaced Myanmar people who have fled conflict across the border.

Concerning the border situation, Mr Maris said Thailand will pursue comprehensive policies to address this perennial issue. Currently, Thailand shares land borders with Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

However, the most complicated of these is the current Thai-Myanmar border situation, as it covers political, economic, social, and cultural spheres, not to mention the presence of ethnic armed groups such as the Karen, Shan, Kayah, Chin, and Mon, which are on the war-path with Nay Pyi Taw.

Of late, with new waves of Myanmar refugees, including asylum seekers, crossing the border, this country's policymakers are scrambling for solutions. At this juncture, they have yet to discuss and formulate comprehensive strategies for dealing with new arrivals with different backgrounds, skills, resources, and inspirations. They are different from the 8888 generation.

The junta's recent arrest in Yangon of six Myanmar sales agents for Thai condominiums flabbergasted Thai authorities. It reminded them of the potential problems that come with the continued worsening economic situation inside Myanmar.

The number of Myanmar buyers of Thai condominiums has grown rapidly in the past two years to the point where they have overtaken Russians and are now second to Chinese buyers.

Furthermore, the influx into Thailand of young Myanmar men escaping the junta's new conscription policy has reached several thousand. It further compounds the number of asylum seekers who have already crossed the border. Their chances of resettlement in a third country are slim.

Lest we forget, the government has to make a decision soon over the fate of an estimated 80,000 displaced Myanmar people in the nine camps in Tak, Kanchanaburi, Ratchaburi, and Mae Hong Son who have been living there for over three decades and have no more chance of resettlement in third countries.

In this context, a new national committee on the Myanmar crisis has yet to be announced. Over the weekend in Chiang Mai, the armed forces, the border security authorities and academics spent two days brainstorming, trying to come up with recommendations to deal with the new challenges that threaten border security and its management in the future.

As long as the situation in Myanmar remains unchanged and asylum seekers grow, the government fears that the border's existing structures will be overwhelmed.

Most importantly on Myanmar, Mr Maris emphasised that Thailand will push for diplomatic solutions through the Asean framework.

Since the Junta's coup in February 2021, Thailand had been pursuing quiet diplomacy off the radar, together with Asean colleagues, to engage the military regime, officially known as the State Administration Council (SAC).

However, under the Pheu Thai government, Thailand's role has been more visible.

Given the current battlefield situation, the junta is contemplating exit strategies that could maintain its overall control of the Union of Myanmar.

One of the more practical strategies is to fully implement the five-point consensus outlined by Asean in April 2021. So far, having the Tatmadaw fulfil the bloc's peace plan has been elusive.

The next few weeks will be crucial for the SAC to demonstrate some goodwill as the annual Asean ministerial meeting will take place from July 21-27 in Vientiane.

Stopping violence against its people, releasing political prisoners, and cooperating more on humanitarian aid for victims of conflict are basic Asean demands. It can make or break Myanmar's engagement with Asean.

The Lao chair has already scheduled the Asean Troika meeting, comprising Laos, Indonesia, and Malaysia -- the current, last and incoming chairs. The Asean special envoy, Alounkeo Kittikhoun, will chair the session on July 24.

It remains to be seen how the other two will help the chair -- whether they will serve as advisers or assign specific tasks to advance the Asean peace plan.

One crucial issue remains: Will the Laos chair invite Myanmar's non-political representative to attend the ministerial conference in Vientiane?

At this juncture, it is unlikely due to Nay Pyi Taw's unyielding attitude. At the end of January, Laos invited Myanmar's senior official to attend the retreat in Luang Prabang.

Mr Maris also reiterated that Thailand will continue supporting humanitarian aid for affected villagers fleeing conflicts in Myanmar. Since April, Thailand and Myanmar have implemented a bilateral agreement to provide humanitarian assistance to affected villages.

The outcomes of the first aid plan were fruitful enough to enable a second phase to kick off, which could be any time soon in Mae Sariang in Mae Hong Son province.

It could be a bigger operation with more area coverage and recipients. In the coming days, it is hoped that there will be more funding and stakeholders from non-Asean countries, besides the SAC, joining the plan, which the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance Disaster will principally manage.

More humanitarian aid should come if the junta cooperates more with Asean's plans. If the circumstances permit, there will also be an international donors' conference for Myanmar.

Finally, Thailand supports dialogue among all stakeholders. The Pheu Thai-led government has been more open in engaging all stakeholders, including ethnic armed groups and representatives of the National Unity Government who are also residing on and off here despite their calls for more contact.

Under the current government, engagement with the SAC is less frequent than during the previous administration.

The latest effort by Pheu Thai juggernaut, Thaksin Shinawatra, to co-opt the armed ethnic groups into appointing him as a mediator to end the conflict in Myanmar was a farce. Such a maverick act is an aberration as it can seriously undermine the country's and Asean's diplomatic efforts.

In the future, international non-government organisations (Ingos) will have more space to work on humanitarian aid for Myanmar's affected people on the border.

For now, inside Myanmar, specialised UN agencies and the Sasakawa Foundation are the only Ingos allowed to deliver that aid. The regime does not trust Ingos due to lessons learned from the Cyclone Nargis experience and the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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