11 July 2024

While the international community has put in a lot of effort into resolving the political crisis in Myanmar after General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup last year, Thailand in contrast has tried to maintain the status quo, including good relations with the junta as usual.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, also a former coup architect in Thailand, has faced criticism for turning a blind eye to the crisis in the neighboring country where another military general has brutally suppressed dissidents and armed ethnic groups.

The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, has killed some 1,388 people and arrested 16,540persons since the coup to topple the elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi last February, according to figures collected as of December 8 by the human rights defender, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The battle for democracy

The coup ignited fierce resistance from the people, notably the young generation who want to see democracy in the longtime military-ruled country, as well as from ethnic groups who have been fighting for autonomy for decades.

The military operations and airstrikes in remote areas have displaced more than one million people. At least 72,000 of them have fled to neighboring countries, including Thailand. The government in Bangkok was reluctant to open safe zones for them but allowed them a brief stay in border areas before pushing them back to the danger zones.

Turning a blind eye

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported on December 5 that Thai authorities had not made any official records of new refugees arriving from Myanmar. Thai officials also did not officially open any temporary safe zones along the border.

The UN’s local partners, however, estimate that over 5,000 people from strife-torn Myanmar currently reside in the border areas of Tak province with grave concerns for their safety due to limitations in providing humanitarian assistance and the Tatmadaw’s on-going airstrikes.

While the Thai government has overtly supported the efforts of ASEAN and the international community to deliver humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, security agencies, notably the National Security Council — chaired by Prime Minister Prayut  himself — covertly limited access of international workers to affected people in border areas via Thai territory, according to an official directly involved in the matter. The Thai government did not want to upset generals in Naypyidaw and viewed the assistance as a pull factor that could bring more refugees and become a heavy burden for the country, the official said on condition of anonymity.

The Thai Public Health Ministry, however, donated 100,000 doses of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children 5-11 years old in October but via the military government’s health agency without the guarantee that the vaccines would be distributed to all needy people without discrimination.

A special envoy for what?

The Foreign Ministry appointed Pornpimol Kanchanalak, who is one of the advisers to Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, as a special envoy to Myanmar in April. Don said the appointment was aimed at helping ease his workload in monitoring foreign affairs in Myanmar to make sure they would align with the ministry’s policy.

Other than making a surprise suggestion to the international community during the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore in early June to call off international sanctions against the junta, the public has never known if the Thai special envoy contributed in any way to ease the crisis and ensure delivery of humanitarian assistance to Myanmar.

The envoy was silent when a MiG 29 jet fighter crossed into Thai air space over Tak’s Phop Phra district on June 30. Even Prime Minister Prayut and other military leaders shrugged off the incursion, saying it would have no impact on relations between the two countries, as the Myanmar pilot had no intention to invade Thai territory and the powers in Naypyidaw had already offered an apology.

The Russian-made fighter jet was apparently operated to launch airstrikes and provide cover to the ground troops’ offensive against the dissident Karen National Union in the border areas.

Coincidentally, the Tatmadaw’s mouthpiece media, Global New Light of Myanmar, on June 30played up a visit by a Thai military delegation led by then Third Army Region Commander Apichet Suesat to Naypyidaw for the Regional Border Meeting. The front-page news reported that Min Aung Hlaing discussed with the Thai delegation anti-terrorism actions in border areas. The Tatmadaw deems dissidents as terrorists and wants cooperation from neighboring countries to suppress them.

Cozying up to the junta

While ASEAN has called for engagement with all stakeholders in the Myanmar conflict to enforce its five-point consensus adopted in April 2021, the Thai government has preferred having normal relations and doing business with the junta as usual.

Thailand’s newly appointed ambassador to Myanmar, Mongkol Visitstump, presented his credentials to the State Administration Council and Prime Minister Min Aung Hlaing on December 7 and discussed a wide range of issues in bilateral ties including trade, investment and tourism, but they did not address the on-going crisis. The ambassador later met with junta number two leader Soe Win and discussed the long-delayed Dawei Deep Sea project which has been mired in difficulties since the 2014 coup in Thailand, and the Myanmar coup last year.

By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk