While the international community is focusing on the humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip, another humanitarian crisis is taking place along Thailand's western front as the clashes between Myanmar's government and ethnic armed groups intensify.
If the ongoing conflict continues unabated, it could induce an influx of internally displaced persons to Myanmar’s neighbours. Countries that share a border with Myanmar are Thailand, China, India, Bangladesh and Laos. Among these neighbours, Thailand’s border is the longest.
Since the escalation of the recent armed conflict on Oct 27, nearly half a million people have been internally displaced, according to the latest report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
After the military coup in February 2021, over 1.5 million people were displaced.
Thailand will be on the receiving end as hundreds of thousands of families and villagers from Myanmar will seek refuge across the border.
Indeed, Thailand has been a sheltering place for Myanmar villagers. During the past three years, tens of thousands of Myanmar villagers fled to find safe ground on Thai soil when the military government clashed with armed ethnic and anti-government militants. Once the fighting abates, 80% of Myanmar villagers would normally return to their homes. At the last count, there were around 9,000 displaced persons in Mae Hong Son province.
But the situation at the 2,401-kilometre Thai-Myanmar border is complex. As most of the lengthy border is non-demarcated, human smuggling rings are proliferating through natural channels along the porous border.
The current crisis in Myanmar is the latest challenge for the government. Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has been busy since he took office in early September.
In the beginning, the Srettha government seemed to focus on improving the living conditions of the Thai people and fixing economic problems.
Yet, the new government has been facing massive challenges in foreign policy. After just a few months in office, the Srettha government was confronted with a new crisis — rescuing Thai workers held hostage by Hamas and repatriating an estimated 26,000 workers from Israel.
Meanwhile, the fighting between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed organisations — in particular with the Northern Alliance — escalated in various parts of Myanmar during the last week of October.
Some of the fighting has also occurred near the Thai-Myanmar western border. The recent precarious situation in Myanmar has sounded alarm bells, prompting policymakers to map out effective policy responses.
At the end of November, Mr Srettha appointed Chatchai Bangchuad as chief of the National Security Council (NSC). Mr Chatchai, a bureaucrat who had been working at the NSC, has a long list of national security challenges that confront Thailand.
After taking office, the new NSC chief immediately launched a new mechanism, known as the Committee for Steering, Monitoring, Review, and Evaluation, to respond to developments in Myanmar. That said, security along the Thai-Myanmar border then became the government’s top priority.
The government is also keeping a close eye on four western provinces — Kanchanaburi, Mae Hong Son, Tak, and Ranong as these four stand to be affected the most by the fighting in Myanmar.
Policymakers now fear unpredictable effects if the Myanmar government intensifies air raids on key logistic centres belonging to the ethnic armed groups.
In response to the humanitarian crisis, the Thai government realised that all actions and progress must be aligned with the five-point consensus proposed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in April 2021. Without Asean as the main mediator in the Myanmar conflict, it is feared there might be outside intervention.
The latest fighting in Myanmar warrants urgent discussions between Myanmar and its neighbours. On the sidelines of the 8th Lancang-Mekong Cooperation’s Foreign Ministers Meeting in Beijing last week, humanitarian assistance was at the top of the agenda during the talks between Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukaraand and his Myanmar counterpart, U Than Swe.
Both agreed to set up a task force to increase much-needed humanitarian assistance to Myanmar villagers affected by the fighting. After the meeting, Mr Parnpree told reporters that the Myanmar government would send a working team to Thailand to discuss the details of the humanitarian effort at the Thai-Myanmar border.
He also reiterated that if the initial phase of implementation succeeds, other aid agencies may be invited to join the humanitarian work.
Mr Parnpree’s move has indicated that it is high time for Thailand to be proactive in engaging all stakeholders to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. Indeed, the international community, especially Asean, has raised concerns about humanitarian issues facing Myanmar.
To put this into context, during Cambodia’s chairmanship of Asean in 2022, humanitarian assistance was discussed as part of Asean’s five-point consensus demand. Little progress was made. Nevertheless. Myanmar was adamant that only designated areas and selected hosts would be allowed to receive and manage external humanitarian assistance.
However, after several rounds of meetings, the military regime agreed to include an Asean-led relief agency called the Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management.
Therefore, in the coming months, there will be further dialogues with all stakeholders, including the participation of the Jakarta-based Asean Institute of Peace and Reconciliation, to discuss and draw up recommendations for sustainable relief operations along the Thai border and inside Myanmar.
At the moment, only a handful of foreign aid is permitted to enter Myanmar. At the scheduled Asean foreign ministerial retreat in Luang Prabang on Jan 28-29, this humanitarian assistance scheme will top the agenda.
Meanwhile, the Thai government has prepared a total of 123 temporary shelters and safe zones along the Thai-Myanmar western border to accommodate up to 81,000 people who are expected to flee from Myanmar.
In terms of policy, the Thai government has used the National Security Policy and Plan (2023-2027) as its major playbook. The plan outlines the country’s comprehensive approaches to all security-related issues.
For Myanmar, the plan indicates that the Thai government will continue security cooperation along the border areas; promote Thai energy security; support the border’s economic growth in all dimensions, including Thai investments in Myanmar; assist in the voluntary repatriation of Myanmar displaced persons in temporary shelters; and improve public health and human rights.
All things considered, the most important policy remains the country’s determination to maintain a good relationship with Myanmar and the ethnic armed organisations despite what is going on the ground.