6 June 2024

Rescuing Thai nationals stuck in war zones in two different parts of the world became a huge challenge for the new government.

First there was the horrific outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East after the militant Palestinian group Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, and soon after, in neighboring Myanmar, a battle broke out between the military government’s forces and rebel armed groups on October 27.

The ruling coalition, in power for less than two months, found itself facing these diplomatic and logistical challenges in less than two months after taking power.

The Middle East massacre

As of December 15, the war in Israel had killed 39 Thai workers and injured 18 others. Eight Thais are still being held hostage in Gaza, but 23 others have been freed, according to the Thai Foreign Ministry.

Of the total 25,962 Thai workers who were working in Israel, 9,475 were evacuated from the war zone. By the middle of December, more than 4,500 Thai nationals were waiting to return to Thailand as the armed conflict continued. Some stayed back as they lived in safe zones, while others decided not to return as they had a debt burden and others had to claim salary arrears. They were also worried that they would have no chance to return to their jobs after the end of the war, which could drag on.

The government allocated more than 750 million baht to compensate some 15,000 people for their losses.

Freeing the hostages

The most difficult task for the government was to secure the release of the Thais taken hostage by Hamas, as Bangkok has no formal relations with the Palestinian group that controlled Gaza. However, using the good offices of Islamic leaders and politicians in Thailand, the government reached out to countries having friendly relations with Hamas in ASEAN, like Malaysia, and in the Middle East, like Iran and Egypt.

Many in the Muslim community at home expressed their angst seeing some returnees wearing white T-shirts with Thai and Israeli national flags, praising the friendship between the two countries. Some protested on social media that the Thai Foreign Ministry was indifferent to the sensitivities of the people in the ongoing conflict, arguing that many countries as well as the individuals who had helped secure the release of the hostages never loved Israel.

Myanmar strife

Meanwhile, the escalation of the armed conflict in Myanmar’s Northern Shan State also had a serious impact on Thailand as hundreds of Thai nationals were stranded in the scam-prone border town of Laukkai. They desperately needed assistance to be evacuated from the dangerous zones.

As of December 15, the Foreign Ministry said that Thai authorities had managed to rescue 414 Thai nationals from the war zone, but it remained unclear how many of them were still stranded in the areas.

Between late November and early December, the government arranged charter flights to evacuate 257 people — 4 Filipinos, 3 Malaysians, and a Singaporean — via the Chinese city of Kunming after their removal from border towns in northern Myanmar. Meanwhile, more than 100 Thai nationals managed to flee the war zones to safe areas in the Myanmar town of Kengtun before receiving assistance from Thai and Myanmar authorities to travel via Thachilek to Thailand.

Escalation of conflict

The lives of thousands of foreigners, mostly Chinese and Thais, were in danger after the ethnic armed organizations under the leadership of the Brotherhood Alliance launched Operation1027 to attack and seize several towns in Northern Shan State near the China border on October 27.

Unlike the returnees from Israel, those coming back from Myanmar were in a different situation. Some of them were victims of human trafficking, who had been lured to work in the scam towns in Northern Shan State, while many were suspects who face prosecution for alleged criminal acts in Thailand.

Laukkai is the capital of the Kokang self-administered zone bordering China’s Yunnan province. It is home to several illicit businesses, including casinos, prostitution, narcotics, and cyber scams. The town was once ruled by the late Peng Jiasheng, leader of the Kokang army — officially known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) — before a 2009 rebellion supported by Min Aung Hliang, who was then the commander of Triangle Command, ousted Peng, also known as the “King of Kokang”.

Kokang town has since been run by the junta’s proxy, Bai Xuoqian, the former deputy commander of the MNDAA, who allowed Chinese gray investors to pour their money into illicit businesses to generate wealth in Laukkai.

In recent months, Beijing has put pressure on Myanmar’s State Administrative Council (SAC) junta to crack down on illegitimate businesses in the “sin” town, which has resulted in the collapse of many gray business empires in which many Chinese had invested, the arrest of several mafia bosses, forcing foreign workers to flee the town.

Junta comes under attack

The situation became more complicated recently when the MNDAA-led Brotherhood Alliance with an estimated combined 20,000 fighters launched attacks aimed at taking back Laukkai. The MNDAA has been under the leadership of Peng Daxun after the death of his father Peng Jiasheng last year. The Brotherhood, which also included the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Arakan Army, reportedly attacked, if not captured, many major towns such as Chin Shwe Haw, Namkham, Lashio, Hsenwi, and Nawnghkio in Northern Shan State.

In the middle of November, the SAC imposed martial law in Kutkai, Kunlong, Namkham, Muse, Lashio, Hsenwi, Kongyan, and Laukkai townships in Northern Shan State, authorizing Tun Tun Myint commander of the North-East Command to do everything in his power to control the situation.

By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk