Thailand has serious policy problems on two fronts in Myanmar

Thailand’s military was accused of forcing back more than 2,000 Karen people who had fled Tatmadaw air strikes in Myanmar this week. Thousands of people fled Myanmar over the weekend after military jets attacked villages near the Thai border. The attacks have been speculated as retaliation against the Karen National Liberation Army, who attacked and captured a government military outpost on Saturday. 

Activist groups, such as the European Karen Network and the Karen National Union (KNU) claimed that Thai authorities had blocked humanitarian aid to those seeking protection and forced them back to Myanmar, despite the ongoing military conflict in nearby Karen villages. Thailand was forced to refute claims it was supporting the military junta, as well as play defense on how far the military went in curbing the flow of Karen people seeking protection. An example of this inconsistency comes from two Thai officials.

First, Thichai Jindaluang, the Governor of Mae Hong Son province told journalists that refugees were not being pushed back; however the chief of Mae Sariang district reportedly told a local meeting that Thailand’s policy was that those fleeing the violence should be returned: “All agencies should follow the policy of the National Security Council which is we need to block those that fled and maintain them along the border.” 

Because of the state of internal conflict in Myanmar, the coerced return of Karen people would constitute a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, a serious violation of Thailand’s obligations under customary international law. Recent events underscore Thailand’s twin policy problems with respect to Myanmar—a lengthy history of both trying to maintain durable bilateral relations with the Tatmadaw and a flawed refugee policy that has left countless people without basic protection.

Villagers bathe on the Thai side of the Salween River in Mae Hong Son province on March 31, 2021, across from where Myanmar refugees earlier attempted to cross the Thai-Myanmar border after military bombings in Karen state. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

The refugee crisis

It’s no secret that the Thai-Myanmar border has been a transit point for refugees and those continually displaced by Myanmar’s nearly constant internal conflict. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are more than 97,000 refugees in Thailand, and as of February 2021, almost 92,000 come from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, with a significant number of Karen living in nine camps along the border. Many of these minority groups have been pushed off their ancestral lands and some live as internally displaced people (IDPs) inside the country. 

But Thailand’s hosting of nearly 100,000 refugees is merely a facade for what is consistently poor policy that fails to deliver proper protected status to groups like the Karen who are fleeing both ethnic persecution and violent conflict. Thailand has a history of providing some basic shelter from the Tatmadaw’s guns, while denying them legal status or documentation. Thailand has yet to become a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and as a result, treats refugees like the Karen in the same fashion it treats illegal immigrants. The end result is people ill-prepared or empowered to make transitions to better lives. The underbelly of Thailand’s refugee policy and the lack of a proper legal framework reveals a world where asylum are exposed seekers are vulnerable to human trafficking or instances where they get caught up in unfriendly detention centers.

Worse, the Thai military has been expelling asylum seekers at the Thai border, without allowing UNHCR access to determine if they qualify for refugee status. For example in early March, the Royal Thai Army’s Pha Muang Taskforce in Chiang Rai province stopped a group of eight people as they were crossing the Ruak River into the Chiang Saen district of Thailand. Thai authorities did not confirm whether any of the eight Myanmar nationals, including two monks, were fleeing the junta’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests.  Further, Thailand has been stepping up its controls over its 2,000 kilometer border with Myanmar based on Myanmar’s high number of COVID-19 cases. In mid-March, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered the military to guard the border more closely to prevent more people from coming across, and Thai Army Chief Narongphan Jitkaewthae had put the military on alert citing the pandemic as rationale. 

Myanmar military Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing (L) is received by Thailand ‘s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at Government House in Bangkok on August 30, 2017. (Photo by Sakchai Lalit / POOL / AFP)

Tacit support for Myanmar’s junta

This past Saturday, which was the bloodiest on record since the February 1 coup, Thailand was one of several countries, including China, India, Laos, Pakistan, and Russia, to attend Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day.  While Prayut claims to not be supportive or provide legitimacy to the Tatmadaw, the relationship has been long forged in friendship gestures over the past several years. It was unsurprising that after General Min Aung Hlaing seized power, one of his first acts was to compose a letter to Prayut justifying his actions. 

The personal relationships cultivated among military leaders contributes to perceptions that Thailand is in league with Myanmar’s generals. Prayut chose Myanmar for his first official foreign visit following the  May 2014 coup d’état. Thailand was particularly friendly when Min Aung Hlaing visited Bangkok in May 2016. Further, as the military crackdown on the Rohingya in Myanmar led to a major regional refugee crisis, Thailand was dead silent, with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan working in rhetorical concert with Myanmar, calling the Rohingya “Bengalis” as to not undermine bilateral relations. Thailand has worked very hard to maintain the ASEAN principle of non-interference, a stand that is likely to cause chaos as the Myanmar crisis spills across Southeast Asian borders. Consistently, Prayut has suggested that Thailand would not “intervene in [Myanmar’s] domestic affairs”. 

Eventually, Thailand will have to acknowledge that the two positions are at odds with one another. Looking the other way while atrocities cause large refugees will bite Prayut in the end. The Rohingya crisis should have taught Thailand that lesson. Prayut’s position of accommodation should end and Thailand should use the personal relationships built to urge Myanmar’s generals to get their house in order. Thailand should by default begin moving closer toward the international consensus rather than the ASEAN consensus, which is failing miserably.  In the interim, Thailand must move from its indefensible position on refugees to a policy that embraces the principles of non-refoulement as well as toward becoming a signatory to the 1951 Convention, as well as other important international treaties. The 2,000 Karen refugees that sought refuge in Thailand this past week could be just a glimpse of the human toll Myanmar’s internal crises will bring its neighbors. The time for accommodation is over. Diplomacy must begin now. 

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