7 Minutes To Read

Thailand: Next Door Frenemy to Myanmar?

7 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Minn Myoh Minn Oo evaluates the political relationship between the Thai government and the Myanmar people.

    Credit: Minn Myoh Minn Oo

    Thailand is the only ASEAN country, sharing a substantial 2,401-kilometer border with Myanmar, receiving many Myanmar migrants for employment, education, and property investments over time. With a shared Buddhist heritage, both countries have similar festivals, food and languages, helping to build a close friendship socially, culturally and also, economically.

     

    Since the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021, the Thai government has refrained from openly supporting Myanmar’s democracy movement against the junta, while Thai people and civil society groups express solidarity. Moreover, humanitarian assistance for the increasing numbers of Myanmar refugees at the borders remains insufficient and most importantly, irregular refugees and migrants are being forcibly repatriated to Myanmar where violence, torture and mandatory military service law await. Many Myanmar youths are relocating to Thailand to escape conscription and apply for educational visas; yet stricter visa restrictions are being imposed. This raises the question of whether Thailand has become a frenemy to Myanmar people amidst these difficult times.

    The Unclear Stance of the Thai government Towards Conflict and Myanmar Politics

    The Thai government under the Prayut administration maintained close relations with the Myanmar military after the 2021 coup and continued its business-as-usual cooperation, and so did the recent Sretha government in 2024.

    The two militaries have a long-standing relationship in joint border patrols and military cooperation and practices. When the Thai military gained control back in politics after the 2014 coup, this led to a closer and more supportive relationship in bilateral military cooperation after the abandonment of a ‘buffer state’ policy towards Myanmar. Consequently, in 2022 Pornpimol Kanchanalak, being a convicted lobbyist in the U.S was appointed as a special envoy to Myanmar to shape Thai-Myanmar foreign policies together with Don Pramudwinai, Thai foreign minister. So, Thai foreign policies sway more to maintaining good relationships with the military-backed State Administration Council (SAC), given their shared economic interests. Recently, two militaries cooperated in taking a patrol along the Thai-Myanmar border near Mae Sot, which showed significantly good relationships even as conflicts escalate in Myanmar.

    Besides strong military ties, Thailand also has significant economic reliance on Myanmar’s resources, particularly natural gas supplies for electricity generation and investments in the Thai company PTT. In early 2024, the two countries decided to enhance their economic cooperation during the visit of U Chan Aye, SAC’s representative to Thailand. Moreover, investments in PTT company for oil and natural gas increased to 89.209 billion baht for 2024-2028, and reportedly, tripled its initial investment of 33.3 billion baht to 93.5 billion baht in 2023 alone because PTT has been ensuring energy security for domestic consumption and reducing foreign currency risk. In 2021, 15% of natural gas consumption was fulfilled by Myanmar’s energy supply; so Thailand has been hesitant to risk this energy source by taking a stance against the junta. Besides PTT, Thai companies have invested over $11 billion in 154 projects in Myanmar, ranking itself as the third largest investor. These companies are likely hoping to benefit from other foreign companies pulling out from Myanmar and to capitalize on economic opportunities and expand their economic presence. Therefore, the Thai government is unlikely to sever ties with the SAC government due to said economic interests.

    In over 3 years of civil war after the 2021 military coup, despite the Thai government having several meetings with the SAC and being a supportive friend, the talk between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Myanmar military facilitated by the Thai government was the first political engagement between the Thai government and revolutionary ethnic resistance organisations from Myanmar. That was also because KNU’s occupation of the Myawaddy border township affects border trade and trade revenues for the Thai government. As a result of the occupation, fighting in Myawaddy led to a big influx of refugees crossing the border into Mae Sot, with daily numbers reaching around 4,000 people, and also disrupted border trade for days—this was a concern for Thailand due to its reliance on stable economic activity. This suggests that the Thai government will never hold talks or meddle as a mediator in Myanmar people’s democratic efforts with revolutionary ethnic resistance groups unless their economic and security interests are threatened.

    Nonetheless, border areas play a significant role in encouraging Thailand to become such an active player in conflict resolution as a moderator for peace talks between the SAC and revolutionary forces. This signals the importance of Thailand’s role in Myanmar’s revolutionary efforts to end internal conflicts and can be a way for both revolutionary parties and international communities to leverage Thailand’s interests to support democratic efforts in Myanmar, promoting a positive outcome for all involved parties.

    Humanitarian Challenges at Thai-Myanmar Border and Forced Repatriation

    After the military coup, it saw a big influx of Myanmar people fleeing violence and persecution from the junta at the border areas. Approximately, 20,000 new refugees are finding sheltering in rural border areas of Thailand, staying in inadequate conditions such as Temporary Safety Areas (TSA). Many of them live in doorless bamboo houses exposed to environmental and health hazards such as malaria, coupled with the lack of food, and the malnourishment in infants and pregnant women. Also, the lack of documentation exposes people to high risks of arrest, detention, and deportation—not to mention, the shortage of job opportunities for refugees and educational prospects for children. Moreover, local Thai authorities and villages do not seem to welcome these refugees because they perceive them as threats to local job opportunities and development.

    Thailand, despite not being a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, has provided humanitarian assistance to refugees in seven temporary shelters and camps across Thai-Myanmar borders. With the country’s Anti-Torture Act not clearly defining the term ‘refugee’, newly arriving refugees encounter several humanitarian challenges, especially detention and deportation, including the lack of access to healthcare services, shelter and food. Asylum Access Thailand reports that the National Screen Mechanism is leaving out new refugees who are in real danger of persecution and violence and fails to protect and accommodate these individuals at the borders.

    The humanitarian crisis has now reached a new level of danger, such that there are 754,000 internally displaced persons in states and regions bordering Thailand as of February 2024, with expectations that the number of refugees will increase. Many escaped to nearby Thailand for only one purpose: to flee violence, air strikes, and military attacks. However, many of them are being forced to return to conflict zones despite the high-security risks they face in Myanmar. Thai authorities forced new refugees and IDPs back to Karenni State where airstrikes and severe conflicts are escalating. Therefore, the Thai government must stop immediately forced returns because these refugees may face persecution, torture, violence or any forms of ill treatment by the junta, violating the principle of non-refoulement.

    More Restrictions on Visa Applications for Myanmar Citizens

    The Thai government has implemented even more visa restrictions for Myanmar citizens. Myanmar migrant workers are now required to go back to their home country to extend their visas after 4-year contracts, even though they used to be able to extend their books at their same workplace domestically. At the same time, the SAC announced that no Myanmar migrant worker will be allowed to work abroad anymore, and eligible youths must serve in the military under the compulsory military service law. This new visa restriction which was probably a SAC request to the Thai government has triggered plenty of risks such as forced military service, high-security risks for eligible youths, detention, and torture upon their return to Myanmar for visa extensions.

    Besides work visas, Myanmar youths who are at risk of forced military service and arbitrary arrests are fleeing to Thailand for safety rather than going to civil war for the junta. Many have applied for non-immigrant educational visas through language schools and universities, but their visa applications are being rejected on the ground by the Thai Immigration Bureau. On the other hand, Thai immigration authorities deny visa restrictions to Myanmar applicants—which is the opposite of the reality on the ground, especially in Chiang Mai. Many students are being asked to apply for education visas in Thai embassies outside of Thailand such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, which most students cannot afford due to the high travel and accommodation costs. Moreover, Myanmar youths and people without any legal documents who irregularly flee to Thailand in search of safety and freedom are reportedly being forced to return to Myanmar by Thai local police and the Royal army at the borders.

    These new restrictions clearly disadvantage Myanmar citizens fleeing from the junta’s violence, putting them at high risk of persecution and violence. The Thai government has not only failed to help Myanmar people, but seem to be actively blocking every opportunity for Myanmar refugees to seek safety. These developments point to indications that the Thai government is not supportive of Myanmar people’s revolution for democracy and peace.

    Is Thailand a Frenemy to the Myanmar people?

    There are 1.5 million Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand, and they comprise 52 percent of migrant workers in Thailand. Myanmar students are the second largest group after Chinese students in Thailand, a number which has increased in the post-coup period. Myanmar people’s natural resources have long supported Thailand’s domestic economy and business companies. All of these contribute towards foreign income, tax revenues, royalties, cheap labour, and further, even boosted domestic Thai economic enterprises. Even so, the Thai government withholds support for the Myanmar revolution and the human rights of Myanmar citizens. As a close neighbour of Myanmar, this is an act of negligence towards Myanmar citizens.

    The Thai military and government are still friends with the SAC-led military, given their close historical military relations and deep economic interests. However, it is indeed a frenemy towards Myanmar people and the Spring Revolution even though Thai citizens stand by Myanmar people. For example, in the early months of the coup, Kasit Piroma, the former Thai foreign minister, called for the Thai government’s full support for Myanmar citizens suffering violence from the junta and warned that Thailand must be a friend to Myanmar people especially during their time of desperate need for protection and assistance. Moreover, Pita Limjaroenrat, a former Prime Minister candidate, clarified his stance on Myanmar revolution that the Thai government must help Myanmar people and revolutionary forces in their democratic revolution, and force the junta to adhere to the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, from Thailand’s Future Forward Party, has also articulated a similar position.

    The Thai government must immediately end its support to the Myanmar military by all means and take the side of Myanmar people in the revolution—help them to live free from fear and violence, with the understanding that the reliance on the junta and the SAC for economic interests is not a sustainable long-term solution. Otherwise, it will always be a frenemy to Myanmar people in the revolution.

    Minn Myoh Minn Oo is a Southeast Asian emerging academic and researcher, with interests in politics, federalism, democracy and ethnic issues. He contributes towards Myanmar’s democratic efforts through his writing, advocacy and research contributions and also towards ASEAN’s political matters.

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