Myanmar's rebel offensive hits close to home
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Myanmar's rebel offensive hits close to home

Thai experts and academics offer advice on govt's next steps

Military personnel stand guard as hundreds of refugees crossed over the river frontier between Myanmar and Thailand on Friday, following the fall of a strategic border town to rebels fighting Myanmar's military junta, in Mae Sot, Tak province, Thailand, April 13, 2024. REUTERS
Military personnel stand guard as hundreds of refugees crossed over the river frontier between Myanmar and Thailand on Friday, following the fall of a strategic border town to rebels fighting Myanmar's military junta, in Mae Sot, Tak province, Thailand, April 13, 2024. REUTERS

Since the 2021 coup in Myanmar, the military regime continues to face resistance from armed rebel groups which have managed to push troops from several strongholds.

Last week's rebel offensive in Myawaddy, a key border town opposite Tak's Mae Sot district, forced thousands of people to flee to Thailand and raised concerns about a humanitarian and security crisis.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has instructed the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the armed forces to send a clear message to all parties involved that the fighting must not spill over into Thailand.

The government has also put in place measures to handle an expected influx of refugees, with Foreign Affairs Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara visiting Mae Sot on Friday to assess the situation.

In light of the escalating violence, the Bangkok Post talked to international affairs and security specialists about the situation and the government's approach to the conflict.

Junta fights to gain control

Dulyapak Preecharush, an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Thammasat University, said Myanmar's military government will fight hard to maintain control of towns and routes that are important for economic and military reasons.

"The town of Myawaddy is the gateway of the eastern border, so control of the town can have influence over the economy and livelihoods of people in Yangon. The military government will retake the town if it falls into the hands of any opposing group.

"We can assume that battlefields will centre around strategic routes and border towns. The ethnic groups will be at an advantage when collaborating with the anti-coup People's Defence Forces (PDF)," he said.

The violence was set off by the military coup in February 2021 against an elected civilian government. The junta is struggling to contain a loose alliance of ethnic rebel groups and a civilian militia movement that has captured broad swathes of territory.

Asked about the prospect of negotiations, the academic said an absence of advances in certain areas such as the northern border suggests some sort of talks are underway.

China has played a key role in brokering a dialogue between the miliary and the opposing groups along the Myanmar-Chinese border, but elsewhere the fighting continues, he said.

The situation in Myanmar has not reached the point where all groups involved will agree to a ceasefire nationwide and where a consensus on the political situation could bring about lasting peace and stability, he said.

On possible intervention by outside powers seeking to exploit the situation for their own interests, Mr Dulyapak said there are indeed such risks, due to Myanmar's vulnerability, vast resources and strategic location.

China sought influence in Myanmar after the 2021 coup and it remains to be seen how the United States and India will intervene to maintain a balance of power, he said, noting that the US's attention is for now focused upon the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts.

As Myanmar's neighbour, Thailand should assume dual roles in mitigating the conflict, said Mr Dulyapak.

The first role is to provide humanitarian assistance to people affected by the fighting. If the conflict is protracted, Thailand could consider seeking assistance from Asean countries to help address the situation, in line with Asean's Five-Point Consensus (5PC) to solve internal issues in Myanmar.

The other role is to foster negotiations and help Myanmar return to peace by maintaining a neutral stance.

The government should consider suggesting that certain strategic areas be kept violence-free to avoid affecting people living on the Thai-Myanmar border.

"The Thai armed forces have stepped up security but additional steps need to be taken, such as bringing in experts in security and economics to address the situation," he said.

Dulyapak: Battle is for Myawaddy trade town

Negotiations urged

Panitan Wattanayagorn, an expert in international relations and security affairs, said the situation at the Thai-Myanmar border indicates armed ethnics groups are intensifying their efforts to seize certain areas.

He said the ceasefire between the Myanmar government and ethnic groups struck in recent years is the result of shared interests -- but the evolving situation suggests things are changing.

"In fact, this kind of situation isn't new. But the government's forces are weakening this time, while the opposing groups are stronger -- especially when they have the PDF and the Karen National Union PC," he said.

He said the regime is weakening due to a combination of three factors: growing resistance after the 2021 coup; difficulties in providing necessary supplies and support to troops; and the frail economy due to the Covid-19 pandemic and sanctions.

According to Mr Panitan, China has taken steps to protect its interests in Myanmar, while the US is involved in multiple ways.

Both countries are believed to be closely monitoring the situation to safeguard their interests, he said.

"The conflict in Myanmar might lead to negotiations that could result in the formation of autonomous states within the country. However, it is unlikely to escalate to the point of fragmentation that was seen in some parts of the Balkans," he said.

On Thailand's response to the Myanmar conflict, he said the government has yet to put together a clear policy and a team that can address issues related to the Myanmar situation.

The defence minister, interior minister and the secretary-general of the National Security Council must be included in the team to give assurances that Thailand can lead efforts to solve the conflict in Myanmar, he said.

"We must assure all sides that we can be relied upon to advocate for negotiations. The goal is to work towards a ceasefire and seek support from the United Nations and Asean to address refugee issues," he said.

Mr Panitan also criticised the government for saying the country is prepared to accept 100,000 refugees. Instead, the government should have adopted a nuanced approach that calls for a coordinated international response.

"We should have said we can take care of a million refugees but they will stay in Myanmar, not in Thailand, with assistance from all actors. We'll act as a coordinator," he said.

Panitan: Junta's forces are weakening

Six-point proposal

Piti Srisangnam, an academic at Chulalongkorn University's Asean Studies Centre, made a six-point proposal to the government that emphasises the importance of mediation and humanitarian aid.

First among all is the setting up of a war room at Government House and a forward command centre in the border province, to coordinate efforts.

Core units must include the NSC to assess risks and strategise to mitigate impacts, the Foreign Affairs Ministry to coordinate with parties in Myanmar, Asean and international organisations, the Defence Ministry to secure the border and support humanitarian operations, and the Interior Ministry to work with the public and private sectors in the country.

A crisis or strategic communication team must be set up to keep the public informed of the situation and prevent any misunderstandings.

It must stress the country's stance on protecting its interest and sovereignty, transparency in providing assistance to all groups and non-interference in Myanmar's internal affairs.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry should work closely with Laos, the current chair of Asean, the Asean Secretariat and the Asean troika to convene a meeting of Asean leaders to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The State Administration Council (SAC) and the National Unity Government (NUG) should also take part and a border trip should be arranged.

Piti: Suggests a six-point proposal

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