US, Thailand discuss using Myanmar border to supply humanitarian aid

October 20th, 2021  •  Author:   Radio Free Asia  •  7 minute read
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People in need of aid in Myanmar have tripled since coup, says the NGO Refugees International.

Thailand and the United States are considering jointly providing humanitarian aid to the Burmese people via the Thai-Myanmar border, the Thai foreign ministry said Wednesday, while a member of an NGO working along the frontier said she did not believe Bangkok would step up to the plate.

Since the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar, Burmese security forces have destroyed scores of villages and homes through bombing, shelling and arson, as their clashes with rebels have increased, resulting in more than 218,000 people being displaced since then, according to the United Nations.

During a two-day visit to Bangkok earlier this week, U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet and an inter-agency delegation from Washington met with the Thai foreign minister and discussed the post-coup crisis in Myanmar, Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sankrat said at a press briefing.

“The two sides have discussed the situation in Myanmar, the handling of the matter by Thailand and ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and the feasibility of Thai-U.S. cooperation to provide people in Myanmar with humanitarian assistance – possibly handled via the Thai-Myanmar border,” Tanee said.

Thousands of displaced Burmese lack food, drinking water, shelter and healthcare in an economy that has all but collapsed since the coup, economists, rights groups and other agencies say.

Burmese are in “dire need of humanitarian aid,” Dan Sullivan, senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

“There has been a tripling of those in need of aid since the coup – 1 million people to 3 million,” said Sullivan, the author of a new report by Refugees International coming out on Thursday, “Dire Consequences: Addressing the Humanitarian Fallout from Myanmar’s Coup.”

Khin Ohmar, founder of Burmese rights group Progressive Voice, said civilians were fleeing their homes and the violence and taking shelter in the jungles.

“They are living without any basic necessities, such as food and health care. We think it is best that neighboring countries like Thailand and India to open their borders to allow the humanitarian assistance,” she told RFA.

The share of Myanmar’s population living in poverty is likely to more than double by early 2022, compared with 2019 levels, according to the World Bank.

In this scenario, U.S. and Thai officials discussed ways to prioritize needs and potential delivery mechanisms.

“They explored possibilities and ways to enhance cooperation between Thailand and the United States in providing humanitarian assistance, including on public health and development of water supply and sanitation system, to the Myanmar people along the Thailand-Myanmar border,” the Thai foreign office said in a statement.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, in a statement issued Tuesday, said that cross-border humanitarian aid were among issues discussed in talks between the delegation led by Chollet, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai and Gen. Supot Malaniyom, the secretary general of Thailand’s National Security Council.

“ [B]urma is one of those issues where they share a border, and we want to work with Thailand in order to find a way to apply pressure on Myanmar to restore democracy there, but also look at humanitarian efforts and where we might be able to coordinate to assist the people of Myanmar,” a senior State Department official told reporters last Friday during a background briefing before Chollet and the U.S. delegation departed for Thailand, the first leg of a three-nation Southeast Asian.

The American delegation was also due to visit Singapore and Indonesia this week.

Using ‘established local networks’

If the U.S. plan to provide aid via the Thai border – with Thailand’s cooperation – works out, “it would be very welcome,” Sullivan said.

“In fact, we have been calling for cross-border aid.”

The United States has been working towards getting Burmese humanitarian aid for some months now, Khin Ohmar of Progressive Voice noted.

“The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. has visited Thailand and met leaders of civil society groups providing aid to Myanmar migrants … We are very glad and would like to welcome the U.S. for taking these steps,” she said.

The main obstacle to getting aid into Myanmar is the military junta, Sullivan said.

“The junta has been directly blocking aid getting into certain areas; it has created bureaucratic impediments like travel authorization and visa delays at checkpoints now – all that alongside the huge spike in displaced people are the obstacles,” he said.

The benefit to working with Thailand and via its frontier with Myanmar is that there are “readily available and long established local networks” in that area already, Sullivan said.

“Aid workers on the Thai side can and need to tap these networks to just send aid, but to ensure it gets to the people who need it the most,” Sullivan said.

“A vast majority in need cannot be immediately through the border, but a significant number are near the [Thai] border, so cross-border aid will really help them.”

BenarNews wrote to the U.S. State Department for details on the humanitarian aid being considered, but did not immediately hear back on Wednesday. Members of The Border Consortium, a group providing humanitarian aid to Burmese could not be reached.

U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet (L) stands with Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Don Pramudwinai, in Bangkok, Oct. 19, 2021. Credit: Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs

‘Staying in the jungle’

Meanwhile, Pornsuk Kerdsawang, a member of Friends Without Borders Foundation, a Thai NGO that works on the Thai-Myanmar border, said that based on its actions so far she does not believe the Thai government will do much in terms of humanitarian aid.

In March, she noted, Thailand sent back more than 2,000 ethnic Karen refugees who fled into the country from military air strikes in Myanmar, although the Thai government said the displaced Burmese went back voluntarily.

“The Thai government still has the same approach. Food assistance from the Thai has to be done quietly,” Pornsuk told BenarNews.

Refugees International’s Sullivan said that when the post-coup crisis began, Thailand did not allow access to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and also pressed those who fled across the border to return to Myanmar.

Khin Ohmar indicated that the U.S. needed to push Thailand.

“We believe the best way to provide the aid to the people is through the border. It is important the U.S. convinces the Thai government to allow aid through Thailand into Myanmar.”

Still, Thailand appears to be aware that people in the neighboring country are in dire straits.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Don met with a range of local and international stakeholders, all of whom said they were ready to cooperate and coordinate humanitarian assistance for Myanmar, the foreign ministry said.

They “exchanged views and experiences, which included the discussion on need assessments, partners, possible transmission routes and coordination modalities in delivering assistance for the people of Myanmar,” the ministry statement said.

Naw Htoo, director of the Karen Human Rights Group said the IDPs’ situation began to worsen immediately after the military coup and the security forces unleashed a brutal crackdown.

“Those who are fleeing home and staying in the jungle to avoid the conflicts, they are in need of food supplies,” Naw Htoo told RFA.

“It would be great if the U.S. can negotiate with Thai authorities to send cross-border humanitarian aid into Myanmar.”

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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