This report explores the current socio-political developments in Myanmar and how they affect Thailand. It also investigates Thailand’s perception of the Myanmar crisis and how the Thai government’s responses. This report provides insights into the effects of the 2021 Myanmar coup and subsequent crises on Thailand and helps us better understand Thailand’s foreign policy position and conduct. Our study is exploratory and descriptive, drawing insights from documentary research, in-depth interviews, participation in seminars and talks, and field visits to border areas between Thailand and Myanmar.
We recognize three significant changes in the socio-political dynamics in Myanmar since the coup:
• The perception of the Bamar people, the major ethnic group, toward minorities has become more positive.
• The military as an institution is crumbling, losing its power grip in many areas, with a growing number of defections.
• Myanmar people are united against the junta and have the new aspiration of turning their country into a federal state
Our study also found that the ongoing crisis in Myanmar has affected Thailand in five areas, namely: migration, transborder security, economic affairs, diplomacy, and geopolitics. Specifically:
• Thailand has experienced more migrants and refugees from Myanmar. We categorize them into three groups: 1) people who crossed into Thailand temporarily—mainly via the natural passes—before returning home; 2) economic migrants who hope to integrate into Thailand’s labor forces; and 3) activists and high-profile individuals opposed to the coup, some of whom would like to get resettled in a third country.
• The 2021 Myanmar coup also posed threats to Thai nationals living along the border areas and inside Thailand. Cross-border gunfire affect the properties of residents who live in the border area. There were also concerns about the operations of the Myanmar military inside Thailand, the increasing drug activities, and public health challenges.
• The ongoing Myanmar crisis disrupted cross-border trade and regular economic affairs.
• The military coup in Myanmar significantly eroded the trust that the two countries have built over the years, leading to a new challenge of choosing who among the conflicting parties Thailand should engage with in the trust rebuilding process.
• The Myanmar crisis led to potential geopolitical rivalry between major powers, putting Thailand in a strategic dilemma as it faced political pressures from these powers.
In this report, we posit that Thai officials have followed the political developments in Myanmar very closely since the 2021 coup. The ‘burden of proximity’ makes the government mainly concerned about the influx of the displaced persons and Myanmar’s opposition parties. Thailand also acknowledges other security, economic, and international relations impacts. Since the coup, the Thai government’s responses to the Myanmar crisis—while being shaped by bureaucrats—are business as usual with an ad hoc feature.
Thailand’s business-as-usual foreign affairs consist of dual-track diplomacy: military-to-military and government-to-government, led by the Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTAF) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) accordingly. Besides, local villagers also establish local mechanisms for cross-border collaboration with Myanmar people. We argue that the application of business as usual to conduct its foreign relations makes Thailand appear to support the junta though not announced openly. This practice puts Thailand at risk of being condemned by Myanmar people and the international community amid the growing opposition against the Myanmar junta domestically and internationally.
Thailand has also used ASEAN as a platform to engage with Myanmar. However, the Thai government is reactive rather than proactive in dealing with its neighbour. To respond to the immediate effects of the Myanmar crisis—especially the influx of migrants and refugees, Thai officials have adopted ad hoc measures as an add-on feature to the business-as-usual model, including the management of the forcibly displaced and Thai civilians. This practice is planned for a short-period implementation until the situation in Myanmar stabilises.
In conclusion, we believe that the Thai government’s policy position towards Myanmar is vague and calls on the Thai government to be more proactive. We propose a ‘flexible approach’ for Thailand to engage with Myanmar. Our policy recommendation consists of three core components:
• Assisting Myanmar refugees
We develop a ‘flexible humanitarian model’ based on the humanitarian-development nexus, allowing Thailand to assist the forcibly displaced while protecting its national interest.
• Pursuing flexible engagement with the junta
We propose ‘flexible engagement,’ guided by the vision of the late Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, former ASEAN Secretary General, in which Thailand communicates its position towards Myanmar openly and reserves the right to put pressure on the junta. This approach also guides us to urge Thailand to be more forceful in pressuring the Nay Pyi Taw regime using the ASEAN platform.
• Endorsing federalism in Myanmar
Amid the ongoing civil war, we strongly recommend that the Thai government engage with other stakeholders inside Myanmar beyond the establishments, especially the National Unity Government (NUG), the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), who have increasingly supported federalism. We believe that Myanmar’s federalism should be in the interest of Thailand since it will potentially bring lasting peace to the country.