Is Thailand Reconsidering Its Myanmar Policy?

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Is Thailand Reconsidering Its Myanmar Policy?

Under Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, there are signs that the country is finally taking a more active role in helping resolve the multifaceted crisis next door.

Is Thailand Reconsidering Its Myanmar Policy?

Myanmar nationals living in Thailand hold lay down flower pay respect for dead Myanmarese during a protest in front of the United Nations’ building in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 1, 2024, marking the third-year anniversary of the military takeover that ousted government by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

The long queues outside the Thai embassy in Yangon in recent weeks speak to the devastating toll and regional significance of the humanitarian crisis that continues to unfold in Myanmar. 

The country has now entered into the third year of protracted, embittered, and violent conflict between the junta government run by the military (Tatmadaw), and a disparate number of opposing forces with competing agendas – including, but not limited to, pro-democracy dissidents and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) aligned with provincial and local interests in states such as Kachin and Shan. Since the military coup in 2021, over 50,000 people have died, including at least 8,000 civilians. 

Whilst the Tatmadaw tentatively maintains its grip on power in core territories such as Yangon, Mandalay, and Naypyidaw, its influence in Myanmar’s peripheral territories, especially in the north, is questionable at best. Popular disillusionment and internal splintering within the military have contributed to significant inefficiencies and the military’s effective failure to maintain control across over around half of the country’s territory. 

Given this context, it is vital for Myanmar’s neighbors, especially Thailand, to step up to a more robust role in brokering peace in the war-torn country. The length of the Myanmar-Thailand border (over 2,400 kilometers) and the influx of refugees into Thailand, as well as the potential disruptions of regional infrastructural project and stability, are all long-standing push factors that have raised the salience of the Myanmar issue among technocrats and bureaucrats in Thailand. 

It is of course imperative to differentiate between the normative and prescriptive questions – who possesses the responsibility to do what, and in what ways would taking action be aligned with the interests of the specific actors – and the empirical and predictive questions – given how the conflicts have progressed thus far, how will these multiple crises be resolved over the coming years? In this light, Thailand’s present role and recent actions in mediating and serving as a tentative buffer in Myanmar merit further examination. 

Winds of Change Under A New Administration? 

Our previous assessment was published at the critical juncture of a transition in power in Thailand, between the previous, military-led government of Prayut Chan-o-cha, and the current, business establishment-steered administration led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, with participation from conventional military parties (the degree of which is a subject of much contention). Skeptics and critics charged that we had pinned our advocacy of greater pragmatism and pressure from Bangkok on false hopes. Yet recent events appear to suggest that the winds of change are indeed blowing when it comes to Myanmar-Thailand relations. There are three observable dimensions through which such shifts are playeing out.

The first concerns leadership decisions and statements. In an interview conducted in December 2023, business tycoon-turned-politician Srettha emphasized that he was adamant on taking a lead role in engaging with the Tatmadaw to tackle the escalating conflict. Thavisin also appointed Gen. Songwit Noonpakdee – known for his outcome-driven dynamism and a savvy openness to working across sectors and interest groups – to lead the country’s armed forces. As compared with some of his predecessors, Songwit is viewed as more substantively independent from and less tethered to the Tatmadaw. 

The second dimension features efforts by the current bureaucracy to step up international and multilateral efforts aimed at peace in the country. On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara stated that Thailand would seek to work with ASEAN and other external partners in advancing regional peace, highlighting the conscious effort to incorporate peace-making in Myanmar into Thailand’s diplomatic “brand” and portfolio on the international stage. The Thai government has also pressed the Tatmadaw into forming a joint aid task force by invoking its concerns over spillover insurgency and strife near the border, and leveraging long-standing connections between the bureaucratic and political establishments of the two countries. 

Third, Thailand has shifted toward a greater role in spearheading humanitarian efforts and engagement. On February 6, Thai Vice Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow declared that Thailand is planning to establish a “humanitarian safe zone” near the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border crossing, to provide food and medical assistance to local communities and displaced persons. With endorsement from ASEAN foreign ministers, the Thailand Red Cross and Myanmar Red Cross will be jointly collaborating on this operation, with Sihasak hinting at possibility of talks between the junta, ethnic armed organizations, and the pro-democracy National Unity Government (NUG). 

These policy announcements and changes, while long overdue, nevertheless reflect a fundamental acknowledgment among the Thai political elite that more must be done regarding the crisis in Myanmar.

Two critical concerns remain. First, to what extent are such humanitarian efforts scalable and effective in catering to the 2.6 million (almost 5 percent of the national population) internally displaced persons in Myanmar? After all, those displaced by the fighting in the western states of Rakhine and Chin, or the westernmost regions within Shan State, are far removed from Thai border. The Mae Sot-Myawaddy safe zone is a thoughtful gesture, yet cannot be a sufficient solution on its own. 

Second, how can Thailand ensure that the Tatmadaw is willing to negotiate in good faith with parties that it views as inimical to its own political security and entrenchment? This concern has been expressed by many who warn of excess optimism concerning Thailand’s role. Short of concrete, clearly delineated incentives and a roadmap for negotiations and reconciliation, and in the absence of clear coordination between China and ASEAN, there exist limited incentives for the junta government to relinquish its assertion of de jure sovereignty and de facto influence over vast swathes of the most economically productive regions of the country. Furthermore, while the opposition movement has gained momentum over recent months, the internal infighting and fragmentation – especially given the ethnic heterogeneity of the resistance movement – puts it at a significant disadvantage when it comes to any bargaining or negotiation process with the military regime. 

Examining the Pivot in Thailand’s Myanmar Policy

Some would argue that talk of a pivot in Thailand’s Myanmar policy is premature. After all, the enduring, personal, and systemic ties between the Thai and Myanmar militaries seem to be a key obstacle to the Thai government’s adopting any transformative proposal that propounds regime change in Myanmar. Yet this critique is both reductionist and naïve, in assuming that the only tenable course of action must involve pushing out the junta and re-installing an entirely military-free, alternative government. There exist a number of intermediate options that are both more desirable, and, as epitomized by the 2021 toppling of the National League for Democracy government, more realistic given the political realities on the ground.

There are several reasons for Bangkok’s recent pivots away from an implicitly pro-Tatmadaw stance. The primary motivation is a growing worry that the military administration is unable or unwilling to rein in migrant and drug trafficking across the semi-porous border between Thailand and Myanmar, as mentioned by Srettha in the aforementioned interview.

The recent Kokang debacle, in which resistance groups undertook an extensive anti-crime crackdown  in northern Shan State with China’s support, demonstrates how weak and curtailed the Tatmadaw is along its border regions. In the few months prior, the military had lost control over at least 35 towns in the region,  including several important border crossings with China, and it is evident that Beijing is increasingly skeptical of the junta’s ability to rule competently over a region where security and stability are of paramount importance to the Belt and Road Initiative.

There are also subtler political considerations. Hedging between the junta and the rebels is an increasingly strategic recourse, given the widespread animosity toward the former among the general population in Myanmar. The recent enactment of a long legally enshrined compulsory military service requirement has expedited the exodus of able-bodied individuals from the country, hence the long queues for visas at the Thai embassy in Yangon. Even within the pro-military establishment there is simmering discontent, as evidenced by the public criticisms of junta chief Min Aung Hlaing by pro-military monk Pauk Kotaw.

Most fundamentally, the Thai diplomatic leadership is keen to signal at least a major break with the previous administration. Having recently launched its bid for candidature in the United Nations Human Rights Council, Bangkok is determined to demonstrate its commitment to democratic and humanitarian norms, a respect for regional and international multilateralism, and capability of projecting its influence in a benign manner beyond its borders. The previously, military-driven modus operandi of external engagement is viewed by certain analysts and voices to have come at the detriment to civilian and non-military interests within Thailand. 

Thailand Must and Can Do More

The present efforts, while positive, are by no means sufficient. If Thailand is to genuinely tackle the crisis, more must be done. 

First, there needs to be more sincere and direct engagement with other countries within ASEAN, including Indonesia, with an incoming administration under current Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, and Malaysia under Anwar Ibrahim, a known vocal critic of the junta. The credibility of ASEAN has suffered setbacks due to its perceived inability to prosecute actionable changes over the Myanmar situation. Bangkok can acquire greater regional strategic leverage by coordinating and shaping efforts within the bloc to broker peace.

Few other countries in the region possess the level of access, understanding, and insider contacts in Myanmar that Thailand has. This is a resilient strength in Thailand’s geopolitical wherewithal that should be better utilized to push for concrete concessions and compromises from all involved parties in the country. 

Second, Thailand should lean more heavily into its Parliament, especially individual political parties, as a backchannel to engage the NUG. A recent seminar assessing the ongoing crisis convened by the Thai National Assembly’s Committee on National Security, Border Affairs, National Strategy, and National Reform, featuring senior officials from the NUG (including U.N. Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun), predictably drew considerable consternation from the junta. 

While the Thai executive is understandably engaged in a delicate balancing act and cannot be seen as officially endorsing the NUG, having some of its legislators serve as the primary conduit for backchannel communications grants the incumbent administration more plausible deniability in maneuvering between non-aligned parties. Indeed, through Track 1.5 dialogues, Bangkok can seek to engage diplomats and business interests in China, India, and Bangladesh – all key actors with significant stakes in the developments in Myanmar.

Third, it behooves bureaucrats in Thailand to liaise closely with humanitarian organizations to expand the range of supplies and sources available to refugees, and to offer a more comprehensive settlement program that delineates clearly how Myanmar refugees in Thailand will be resettled and assimilated. The humanitarian crisis clearly knows no borders, and is by no means confined to the Myanmar-Thailand border.

Myanmar as a Litmus Test

Myanmar serves a crucial litmus test – for both ASEAN and Thailand. To the former, it has, and will remain, a critical indicator of the prowess and ability of ASEAN members to set aside internal disagreements and forge a tentative entente over the case for and limits of non-interference, and bring about diplomatically significant results through primarily economic and commercial incentives and disincentives (in the absence of an ASEAN army).

For Thailand, how the new government chooses to handle the persisting violence, will be a bellwether for its foreign policy as well as regional and international standing. Will it opt for a path of prudent yet effective negotiation and multi-pronged engagement, filling the diplomatic vacuum with leadership and resolve? Or will it default to the errors of its old ways, with military-steered diplomatic forces outmaneuvering civilian and pro-business interests within its ranks? 

On a more practical level, as the wars in Gaza and Ukraine rage on, it is imperative that we do not overlook the urgency and gravity of the violence playing out in Myanmar. The complexity and plurality of interest groups and factions in the country compound the stakes and unpredictability in the crisis, and all capable parties should play a role in brokering for elusive yet vital peace.