By Subel Rai Bhandari
Thailand, which shares a long history and border with Myanmar, should do more to address the crisis there, experts and activists said, one year after the Burmese military seized power in a coup.
While the Thai foreign ministry says it has been calling for a peaceful solution to the turmoil in neighboring Myanmar, U Kyaw Win, executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network, says that is not nearly enough.
Thailand “should be more vocal than Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, because Thailand, as a frontline state, is facing more consequences than these three countries, economically and security-wise,” he said.
He was referring to the three influential ASEAN countries that have consistently – and vocally – condemned the coup. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore were also instrumental in shutting out coup leader Min Aung Hlaing from the regional bloc’s big summit last October.
The three countries, along with Thailand, were among the five founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But Thailand, which has long been considered a linchpin in ASEAN-Myanmar relations, has been criticized throughout the past year as being relatively soft on the post-coup crisis and the mass killings since then that have divided the regional bloc.
On Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the coup, Indonesia and Singapore also issued strongly worded statements, with the former saying it “deplores” the military’s actions and the city-state expressing concern that “conditions in Myanmar for the people continue to deteriorate” a year on from the overthrow of an elected civilian government.
Thailand should “join the world community in condemning the violence and prohibit the selling of arms to the Myanmar army,” a retired Thai diplomat, Russ Jalichandra, told BenarNews.
When contacted about the allegations that the Thai government had not done enough, foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat defended the government’s stand.
Thailand has been closely following developments in Myanmar “with concern and wishes to see a quick return to peace and stability,” Tanee told BenarNews on Wednesday.
“Thailand has been consistently calling for de-escalation and a cessation of violence, the further release of detainees, and a peaceful solution through dialogue among relevant parties in Myanmar,” he added.
Russ was derisive about the government’s statements.
“‘We would like to see a peaceful settlement to the conflict,’ blah blah. But I don’t see any condemnation from the Thai side. There are Thai people along the border who are affected by the ongoing fighting in Myanmar,” said Russ, a former Thai ambassador to Mozambique and Kazakhstan.
“We have reports of some Thai boats being shot by the Myanmar army along the river bordering Thailand and Myanmar. … I have seen no evidence of the Thai government even defending their own people. This is gravely, gravely wrong. It’s unbelievable in my opinion,” he added.
Myanmar Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing toppled the democratically elected government in Myanmar on Feb. 1 last year, threw many democratic leaders in jail, and then after, turned the guns on his own people who were protesting against the military’s actions.
Since the coup, at least 1,685 civilians – most of them pro-democracy protesters – have been killed by security forces until December 2021, according to the Burma Human Rights Network.
‘Both have no respect for human rights’
Why has Thailand lagged in condemning the coup? Because the Thai government and the Burmese junta share certain crucial characteristics, according to Russ, the former ambassador.
“Both the Thai government and Myanmar junta share a similar uniform, similar values, and similar traits. Both have no respect for human rights and international law,” he said.
Russ alleged that the 2014 Thailand coup by Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the then-army chief of staff and the current prime minister, may have been “an inspiration” for the Burmese junta when it decided to rob power from the civilian government.
“On a certain level, the coup d’état in Thailand was… like an influence, more or less, for the Myanmar army to copy,” the ex-diplomat said.
Russ said that the Thai government’s previous and recent actions reflect its stand on the Burmese military and the military coup in Naypyidaw.
For instance, Min Aung Hlaing was the first foreign dignitary to visit Thailand within two months after the 2014 Thai coup. What’s more, in 2018, he received the (First Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, a military-civilian order awarded by the king of Thailand.
And since the coup, “Thailand didn’t vote against selling arms to Myanmar last year, so it’s quite clear what the current Thai government is thinking,” Russ said.
“So, while [the Thai government and Prayuth] do wield some influence over the Myanmar military, this closeness will not be of any advantage to the people.”
Russ was referring to a June 2021 vote in the General Assembly on a U.N. resolution calling for preventing the flow of arms to Myanmar. ASEAN members Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand abstained from the vote.
‘A mixed bag’
Not all are critical of Thailand, though.
Burmese activist Pan Hsu Pyae Eain, who managed to flee to Thailand last October, said she considered herself lucky.
Thailand is “always the first country many human rights defenders and activists like me think of when we think about leaving the country,” she told BenarNews in Bangkok.
“Thai [people] are really in line with us Burmese people. They are very supportive. I feel like they have solidarity with our cause,” she said.
Pan Hsu said she did “not expect the Thai government to support the Burmese people’s fight for democracy.”
“[B]ut I hope they will extend more humanitarian assistance to the displaced and migrants who cross the border. They can do more.”
U Kyaw Win, of the Burma Human Rights Network, agreed with Pan Hsu.
“We are very appreciative of what Thailand has done so far … Thailand needs to do more to help us, especially in cross-border humanitarian aid, which is extremely important to save millions of lives,” he told BenarNews.
For Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, the Thai government has exhibited “a mixed bag” of reactions toward the political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
“On the one hand, a significant number of political refugees … have been able to flee to Thailand, have been able to stay in Thailand,” Robertson, who is based in Bangkok, told BenarNews.
“If the Thai authorities wanted to stop that, they could, and they have not. So, there is, in some ways, positive recognition by Thai authorities that they have to maintain some humanitarian principles in terms of allowing people to flee here.”
However, he said, there has been “a real reluctance, particularly by the Thai Army,” to allow people fleeing the aerial bombardments in Myanmar to come across the border to Thailand and receive basic humanitarian protection.
Thai authorities “believe that if some come, many people will come in; they will stay, and they will have another refugee crisis,” Robertson said.
“I don’t think that’s the case.”
Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok contributed to this report.