As the calendar turned to February, it brought the solemn first anniversary of the 1 February 2021 military coup d’état in Myanmar, which saw the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) ousted from power.
Since then, the human toll has been severe. More than 14 million people are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance, more than 8,800 remain locked behind bars under weak or false pretenses and more than 1,500 have been killed.
While fellow ASEAN members Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei have arguably risen to the occasion by calling for diplomatic engagement, regional consensus on a plan of action and the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy, Thailand has remained largely silent, even though a humanitarian crisis looms just over its western borders.
Intentional or not, Thailand’s lack of overt action in addressing the crisis has exacted a heavy human cost.
Since imprisoning NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the military junta led by General Min Aung Hlaing has consolidated political power and launched a systematic campaign against his political opponents. A so-called state of emergency was declared and Myanmar’s fledgling democracy was suspended while the junta removed opposition members deemed ‘terrorists.’
Cambodia, the ASEAN chair for 2022, recently announced the junta’s appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, would not be invited to the ten-nation organisation’s annual meeting of foreign ministers scheduled for 16-17 February in Phnom Penh. Inside Myanmar, opposition figures called for residents to mark the coup anniversary with a national ‘silent strike,’ which subsequently left streets deserted and shops and markets empty.
Following the coup, Thailand hosted early talks between Wunna Maung Lwin and ASEAN counterparts, but also has maintained personal relationships intertwining the Thai and Myanmar militaries despite persistent ethnic tensions.
While Myanmar has long been a foe of Thai nationalists for generations, their current relationship is decidedly warm.
Less than two weeks after seizing power, Aung Hlaing wrote a personal letter to Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha asking him how to “support democracy.” Years earlier, the coup leader saw in Prayut a man he could imitate.
The former Royal Thai Army chief, 2014 coup leader and current prime minister had accomplished what Aung Hlaing could then only dream: manipulating the political system to suit a pro-military and pro-monarchy government.
Thailand’s tendency not to act has resulted in unspeakable human trauma just across its border.
In late December, more than 4,400 people fled into Thailand to escape fighting between Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the Karen National Union (KNU). As refugees flooded neighbouring Tak Province, Thai authorities provided basic shelter and humanitarian assistance. However, that simply raised the number of refugees in Thai camps to more than 91,400. Their arrival did not portend a positive outcome.
Thailand has flatly refused to become a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, carte blanche denying legal status to refugees and instead focusing on a policy of resettlement and voluntary return.
Worse yet, recent reports have indicated the Tatmadaw has made life difficult for those in the camps, limiting fresh food or completely stopping the flow of aid.
The United Nations recently pleaded with Prayut to allow aid groups access to those in the camps through Noeleen Heyzer, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy on Myanmar. For now, those pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
While Thailand’s policy toward refugees has sufficed under different governments for decades, the Myanmar crisis would seemingly warrant a policy change.
Under president Donald Trump, the US government restricted the number of incoming refugees, while other governments in Europe, the Middle East and Western Asia are already inundated with refugees from Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
For those currently in Thai refugee camps, there is no chance of a voluntary return to Myanmar under current conditions. Some of those living in Thailand’s many refugee camps have remained there for decades.
Thailand’s inaction can be explained by three significant factors. First, the country has pledged on several occasions during meetings with leaders from Naypyidaw to remain neutral and not to violate the sovereignty of fellow ASEAN member states.
During the brutal crackdown on the country’s ethnic Rohingya minority in 2017, over which Aung Hlaing presided, Thailand pushed people escaping mass atrocities to move into neighbouring Malaysia or further south into Indonesia, denying them basic refugee protections.
Second, Thailand’s military-backed government has forged close business ties with military-controlled conglomerates in Myanmar. Even before the onset of Covid-19, Thailand exported more than $4.2 billion in goods to Myanmar, including petroleum. Comparably, Myanmar exports to Thailand passed $5.3 billion.
Finally, the optics are unsettling to the Thai regime. It would be hypocritical to come to the aid of people seeking democracy abroad while the government continues to crack down on democratic dissent at home.
There is an opportunity for Thailand to play the role of mediator. Thailand’s past ‘constructive diplomacy’ aimed at opening up economic opportunities in Myanmar under prime minister Chatichai Choonhaven is highly relevant.
While personal relationships were under development, many in the Chatichai government and the Chart Thai political party were well-established business elites, particularly in logging, textiles, construction and agriculture, including the interior minister. The sway of these elites nearly eclipsed that of the military.
It was in the best interests of both countries for Thailand to pursue constructive diplomacy with Myanmar even though the aims were largely extractive or the Thai regime was corrupt. In the following years, even after a 2021 military coup swept Chatichai from power, border trade between Thailand and Myanmar flourished.
Today’s personal relationships, like those of the past, must be weighed against the possibility of a protracted conflict, which would see an exponential increase in the number of refugees pouring across provincial borders at Tak, Kanchanaburi and eight others.
The prospect of an armed civil war is made more likely by groups abandoning what was previously a nonviolent struggle. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project has tracked a substantial increase in the number of armed groups in Myanmar. Last year, Myanmar’s National Unity Government established the People’s Defence Force, hoping to unify ethnic and ad-hoc groups under a single command.
Thailand has been inactive with ASEAN concerning Myanmar, perhaps out of deference to Aung Hlaing, but its abundance of caution and history of elite relationships makes it a prime candidate to conduct a quieter form of diplomacy.
Losing the opportunity to advance diplomacy amid what is becoming a regional crisis could undermine Thailand’s standing within ASEAN and in the broader Indo-Pacific region. Regional partners like India and Japan could increase external pressure.
While the Chatichai government believed it could conduct extractive diplomacy in Myanmar without the strain of Great Power pressure, Thailand’s delicate balancing act between the interests of the US and China is precarious.
Chinese state-owned companies are the largest suppliers of small arms and heavy military equipment to the Tatmadaw, many of which have been used against civilian populations. Chinese investments in Myanmar form more than a quarter of the country’s GDP, but it too has had to tread lightly.
Even though US president Joe Biden’s foreign policy has been inconsistent, it is not unreasonable to assume the US would pressure Thailand to become more proactive toward Myanmar. In reviving a stalled bilateral relationship, there are opportunities for both.
Biden’s $102 million donation this past October to support Covid-19 recovery in Southeast Asia, which was announced at a virtual ASEAN summit attended by Prayut, could be increased.
Thailand could take a lead role in jumpstarting coronavirus vaccination along its vulnerable border areas. While Thailand shouldn’t further legitimise the junta, it can provide material support to relevant aid agencies with similar capacities and resources.
Thailand should finally learn from its past. Chatichai’s diplomacy in Myanmar yielded many more negatives than tangible benefits.
Working constructively with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was disastrous, resulting in Thailand’s reputation being sullied by egregious human rights abuses in the construction of the Yadana gas pipeline. The complexity of relationships and a Burmese accusation that Thailand was simultaneously supporting the KNU nearly resulted in a clash between Thai and Myanmar militaries.
Thailand’s approach over the past year has yielded no results and has bound the government to a despotic regime acting with increased desperation
Their engagement with SLORC increased tensions, with a Myanmar unit occupying a chunk of Thai territory for almost a year. With the Thai military itching to forcefully dislodge Myanmar from Thai territory, an intervention by King Bhumibol Adulyadej was required to defuse the matter.
Instead, Thailand should reevaluate its expectations with regard to its relationship with Myanmar’s generals. The Myanmar conflict has driven armed groups and populations closer to the Thai border, including in an incident during which Myanmar forces fired warning shots at a Thai boat carrying border patrol officers. A recent attack by the Tatmadaw on KNU forces operating in Lay Kay Kaw, just a few kilometers from the Thai border, sent many fleeing into Thailand. The attacks resulted in exchanges of artillery fire between Thai and Myanmar forces.
Thailand’s approach over the past year has yielded no results and has bound the government to a despotic regime acting with increased desperation. Inaction has come at a heavy human cost. The toll in the coup’s second year is likely to worsen.
The crisis on Thailand’s borders, looming like a storm on the horizon, if unabated could soon exact a cost on Thai people as well. For Prayut, time is running out.
Mark S. Cogan is an associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.