Secretary of State Antony Blinken was forced to cut short his first trip to Southeast Asia this week, scrapping plans to meet with Thai officials due to COVID-19 concerns. That talks with Thailand, specifically, were put on hold is an unfortunate development. Because while Blinken’s agenda for the trip was wide-ranging, the crisis in Myanmar was at the top of his list. And with a nearly 1,500-mile border and close ties with Myanmar’s military junta, Thailand has the greatest stake in Myanmar’s future among ASEAN countries. As the world discusses a strategy for addressing the crisis in Myanmar, Thailand’s potential influence — especially with respect to humanitarian access — could prove consequential.
THE REGIONAL RIPPLE EFFECTS OF MYANMAR’S COUP
Following Myanmar’s Feb. 1, 2021 coup and the country’s subsequent descent into lawlessness, Thailand has had to battle a growing flood of people, drugs, disease and even threats to its sovereignty along the porous border.
Thailand’s relationship with Myanmar’s junta has made it cautious about freezing the junta leadership out of the region’s political structures entirely.
Thailand is a natural destination for economic migrants fleeing a dire economic situation across the border and for refugees seeking safety. Even when Myanmar’s prospects seemed bright and GDP per capita was nearly 20% greater than it is now, migrants flocked to Thailand to work in agriculture, manufacturing and other low-end jobs, often in precarious circumstances. A new report released by UNDP in early December shows that half of Myanmar’s population will fall below the poverty line by 2022, and that over 3% of households have at least one member planning to move in 2022. Meanwhile, 268,000 people have been internally displaced by violence since the Feb. 1 coup, with another 22,000 refugees already displaced into neighboring countries.
And with criminal networks scaling up illegal activity in border zones, Thailand has seen an alarming rise in drugs coming across its border. These networks are also increasingly trafficking Thai, Malaysian, Cambodian and other nationals into illegal casino zones on the Thai border, where they are forced to work for Chinese gangs engaging in large-scale online fraud and operating online casinos targeting Chinese nationals.
COVID-19 vaccination rates are also nearly zero in Myanmar’s borderlands, making the risk of infected individuals crossing the border a dire threat to Thailand’s economy — which has been hit harder than any other in the region by the pandemic but is finally beginning to reopen. Hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated people along the border increasingly represent a serious threat to the country’s economic recovery, particularly as vaccine-resistant variants continue to emerge.
Furthermore, as Myanmar’s junta continues military campaigns against ethnic minorities in the borderlands and attempts to chase pro-democracy actors into ethnic territory along the Thai border, its lethal attacks have already spilled over into Thai territory, endangering Thai nationals. Without a resolution to Myanmar’s internal conflict, these pressures are bound to increase.
THAILAND’S RELATIONSHIP WITH MYANMAR’S JUNTA
Meanwhile, Thailand, whose government stems from a 2014 military coup, has an unmatched understanding of — and relationship with — Myanmar’s military commanders. This dynamic has made Thailand cautious about freezing the junta leadership out of the region’s political structures entirely. It also gives Thailand (perhaps false) confidence that its ties can help moderate the junta’s behavior through formal direct dialogue.
Perhaps even more importantly, Thailand effectively controls access to some representatives of Myanmar’s democratic opposition — including members of the National Unity Government, as well as key ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) that control territory alongside the Thai border. If humanitarian assistance is going to flow to these entities, it will be with Thailand’s consent.
For the United States and Thailand, the situation in Myanmar, while tragic, has provided focus for the bilateral relationship — something that is often elusive despite deeply institutionalized ties and a treaty alliance. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the relationship has struggled to find strategic direction. And while the alliance continues to provide benefits to both countries, the agenda for cooperation on political issues has often been sparse. However, on Myanmar, the potential for cooperation is immense, even without the Thai government bringing to bear the full influence it has with the junta, which it has so far been reluctant to use. To harness this potential, the United States and Thailand should focus on three priorities:
1. Cooperate on humanitarian aid and COVID-19 vaccines.
The first priority should be cooperation on urgently needed humanitarian aid and COVID-19 vaccines. As vaccination levels increase in Thailand, and as the country moves in the direction of reopening and economic recovery, Thailand will have strong incentives to push for vaccinating the population on both sides of its border with Myanmar.
However, orchestrating vaccination efforts in Myanmar’s border regions is beyond the capacity of Thailand’s relationship with Myanmar’s military junta. Ever further, local populations will not accept the junta administering vaccines in areas under control of the EAOs, and a junta incursion would put key stakeholders seeking refuge at significant risk.
Instead, the United States could provide highly effective, deployable vaccines to Thai authorities, who could in turn tap local non-state authorities that control border crossings to administer the vaccines. Many of these local non-state authorities have developed strong public health systems over the past several decades and would be willing partners in Thailand’s efforts to vaccinate border populations. Using this system can increase Thailand’s border security while also enhancing the health, safety and security of Myanmar’s democratic opposition.
Thailand can also scale up cross-border assistance to the growing number of internally displaced people (IDPs) inside Myanmar — including food, health and development assistance that could ultimately enhance the border economy and help make local communities more resilient to the incursion of international transnational criminal actors. To date, Thailand has been reluctant to engage in this type of assistance without first going through the junta, which would be a non-starter for those seeking aid.
2. Establish a humanitarian buffer zone with US support.
The second priority should be to establish a humanitarian buffer zone in Myanmar with US support, which would reduce pressure for IDPs to cross the border, thus reducing COVID-19 risk and enabling pro-democracy actors to stay in-country. Deep military-to-military ties between Thailand and the United States, and Thai knowledge of US capabilities, would enable this type of cooperation and demonstrate in practical terms for both sides the benefits of the military ties that have been developed jointly over decades. Jointly announcing a humanitarian buffer zone would be among the most consequential developments in the alliance since the end of the Vietnam War era.
3. Examine the impact Myanmar’s crisis will have on regional transnational crime.
The third priority should be to begin consultations on the impact that the situation in Myanmar will have on regional transnational crime in the coming months and years. Initially, the two sides could jointly conduct a threat review on cross-border criminal enclaves that are trying to weaken governance in Thailand. There is growing evidence of trafficking, fraud and malign activities in these areas. Following the coup, as levels of anarchy increase, and as armed conflict spreads across the country, it is inevitable that disorder and criminality in Myanmar will become an engine fueling crime in Thailand.
Panning out, Myanmar represents a tremendous opportunity for the revitalization and modernization of U.S.-Thailand military, strategic and developmental cooperation. Through joint collaboration on addressing these issues, the two sides can reinvigorate the overall status of their relationship, and, on the basis of this cooperation, find new and exciting opportunities for building joint capacities to deliver developmental aid across the Mekong region, to deepen military ties to address both traditional and non-traditional security threats, and to build a regional hub for addressing the incursion of criminal actors — particularly from China — into the region.
Brian Harding is a senior expert of Southeast Asia at the United States Institute of Peace.
Jason Tower is the country director of Burma at the at the United States Institute of Peace.
This article originally appeared under United States Institute of Peace’s “Analysis and Commentary.”