11 July 2024

The Thai government led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is employing a new approach to the ongoing crisis in neighboring Myanmar, focusing on humanitarian assistance, but analysts doubt if it will be effective.

The government plans to set up a mechanism to deliver humanitarian assistance to displaced persons fleeing the armed conflict in military-ruled Myanmar and has invited many countries and organizations, including the Myanmar junta’s State Administration Council (SAC), to join the initiative.

Myanmar has been plunged into a spiralling crisis since top commander Min Aung Hliang staged a coup to topple the civilian elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1, 2021. The undemocratic swoop has triggered fierce resistance from the people and ethnic groups. The conflict has expanded into a civil war, claiming the lives of thousands and displacing a huge number of people, while also posing serious threats to the region.

Humanitarian task force

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara discussed an idea to create a joint task force for humanitarian purposes with his Myanmar counterpart Than Swe on December 7 when they met on the sidelines of the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation in Beijing.

Both sides agreed to work together to scale up humanitarian assistance, which aligns with the implementation of ASEAN’s 5-Point Consensus, for those living along the Thai-Myanmar border, according to a Foreign Ministry statement issued after the meeting.

Prime Minister Srettha said he had also discussed the matter with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, when he was in Tokyo for the ASEAN-Japan summit from December 16-18. Thailand, which shares more than 2,000 kilometres of border with Myanmar, was ready to join hands with Japan to set up a humanitarian assistance committee, Srettha told reporters.

Neither Prime Minister Srettha nor Foreign Minister Parnpree spelled out the details, components, and features of the so-called task force or committee for humanitarian assistance.

The government has sought a greater role in helping ease the Myanmar crisis, as the conflict has intensified after dissidents led by the Brotherhood Alliance (BA) launched Operation 1027 and attacked many towns, including the scam-ridden town of Laukkai where hundreds of Thai people were stranded in the Northern Shan State in late October.

With the collaboration of the SAC and the ethnic insurgent United Wa State Army, the Thai authorities managed to evacuate more than 400 Thai nationals from Laukkai and the nearby war zone recently.

More than half a million displaced

The fresh armed conflict since Operation 1027 on October 27 has displaced 660,000 people in northern and southern Shan, Kayah, Rakhine, Chin, Sagaing, Mandalay, eastern Bago, Kayin, Mon, and Tanintharyi, according to the United Nations Office for Coordination on Humanitarian Affairs. That has raised the total number of displaced people in Myanmar to 2.6 million, the UN said in its latest report released on December 15.

“There have been reports of some displaced people returning home while others have moved multiple times for safety reasons. Some are reportedly reluctant to leave current displacement sites in northern Shan due to the risk of forced recruitment,” the UN report said.

The displaced persons are facing difficulties as their movement and transportation of goods has been blocked, while the military clashes interrupt phone and internet communication, it said.

“The lack of humanitarian and commercial access to transport routes is creating a scarcity of food, shortages of essential household items, soaring commodity prices, and a fuel crisis in affected areas,” according to the UN.

Border sources estimated that some 6,000 people had already sought shelters along the Thai border and a lot more were expected to come unless the situation could be eased soon.

Lack of trust

Naruemon Thabchumpon, a lecturer from Chulalongkorn University, said the SAC junta might exploit the task force to restrict or control supplies of humanitarian assistance to internally displaced people who mostly took refuge in ethnic-controlled areas. The military junta currently has not been able to access such areas, she said.

“There can be more concerns on the ground, especially trust from ethnic armed groups that are now fighting the SAC,” Naruemon told Thai PBS World in an interview.

The displaced people might feel uncomfortable receiving necessities handed out by SAC officials, she said. “Those people will feel unsafe to physically interact with the ones who forced them to leave their place of domicile,” said the scholar who is familiar with the Myanmar issue.

The military junta might take the opportunity to investigate, infiltrate and arrest people suspected of being involved in the civil disobedience movement, she added.

This humanitarian scheme could undermine the efforts of non-government organizations and local civic groups working on the ground, she said, and suggested that the Thai government should primarily collaborate with existing channels, rather than create a new mechanism.

Enhancing Thailand’s role?

Dulyapak Preecharush, Thammasat University’s deputy director of the Institute of East Asian Studies, said the government’s new approach might be helpful in the short term, but Thailand could not use it as leverage to broaden its role in finding a lasting solution for peace in Myanmar.

“The main policy for Thailand is to maintain security, and enable economic and trade development along the border,” Dulyapak told Thai PBS World in an interview. “I would like to see more proactive and comprehensive policies from the government and the Thai armed forces.”

Unlike China, Thailand has less influence over the ethnic groups and the SAC junta. It might not be able to play any role in mediating peace as the ongoing tension in Myanmar is complicated. Many ethnic armed organizations who have launched offensives against the military junta have wide-ranging objectives.

The Brotherhood Alliance is made up of three ethnic armed organizations comprising the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Arakan Army (AA), who launched Operation 1027 on October 27 in Northern Shan State.

“They are building states through war,” Dulyapak said. The Kokang ethnic armed group MNDAA and Paluang ethnic TNLA were expanding their respective territories and creating their states with certain autonomy, he said.

Concessions for truce

The Kokang and Paluang ethnic states under the new arrangements would be different from those under the 2008 Constitution, said Dulyapak, the author of the recently launched book: “Politics of Federalization in Myanmar”.

“It would be something similar to Wa State in which the United Wa State Army retained its armed forces and business concessions in exchange for a truce with the junta,” he said.

With China’s mediation, the Brotherhood Alliance might agree to make peace on the condition that the junta must compromise and retreat, enabling them to take control and administer their controlled territories, he said.

Allied dissident forces in Karenni (Kayah) State, near the Thai border, also launched their version of Operation 1111 on November 11, aiming to take control of Loikaw, the principal city of the state, for a different purpose.

The group comprising the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, Karenni National People’s Liberation Front, and Karenni Army want to retain the armies, have their own administrative, legislative, and judicial branches but share foreign, national defense policies, and currency with the central government.

By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk