Thai seminar with exiled Myanmar leaders signals shift in stance, say analysts

RFA Burmese and BenarNews
Thai seminar with exiled Myanmar leaders signals shift in stance, say analysts Participants take part in the Myanmar seminar hosted by the Thai Parliament on March 2, 2024.
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The Thai Parliament’s decision to invite exiled members of Myanmar’s opposition to a seminar on the country’s political crisis signals a shift in Bangkok’s approach towards its war-torn neighbor, analysts say.

The meeting, which was organized by the opposition Move Forward Party and held at Parliament House in Bangkok last weekend, focused on democracy and security issues along the shared border between the two countries. 

Attendees also discussed humanitarian aid to Myanmar, which has been mired in conflict since a military coup in February 2021 ousted a civilian government.

Speakers included Zin Mar Aung, the foreign minister of Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government; United Nations Special Representative for Human Rights in Myanmar Tom Andrews; and the permanent representative of Myanmar to the U.N. in New York, Kyaw Moe Tun.

Leaders of Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups, civil society organizations and student union leaders also attended the seminar. No representatives from Myanmar’s government were present.

“Meetings of this nature have never occurred, nor would they have under the [Prayuth Chan-o-cha] government, due to concerns about losing some special ties with Myanmar’s military government,” Dr. Lalita Hanwong, a historian at Kasetsart University and advisor to the Thai government on national security issues, told BenarNews.

She said the seminar showed that the Thai government “might be planning for the various scenarios that could unfold in Myanmar, such as the country fragmenting into factions.”

“It’s crucial to assess the direction of Thailand's relationship with the ethnic minority groups,” she said.

The event held on March 2-3 angered the military junta, which sent a letter to Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying it had tarnished Thai-Myanmar ties.

Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara inspects a customs checkpoint near the border with Myanmar, in Mae Sot, Thailand, Feb. 8, 2024. [AP]

Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara was scheduled to give a keynote speech, but canceled at the last minute without explanation.

“We have no comment on this matter because the Thai foreign ministry was not the event co-organizer,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Radio Free Asia, an affiliate of BenarNews, on Thursday.

Thailand has taken a more proactive and coherent approach towards Myanmar under Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, whose government came to power last September

The government's first major initiative is opening a humanitarian corridor on the Thai-Myanmar border in March, with the aim of providing food and medicine to displaced populations.

Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) unanimously endorsed the plan in January and it also has the support of the United States.

But the humanitarian corridor is facing skepticism from experts and aid workers, who say its limited scope and lack of engagement with ethnic minority forces means it is unlikely to have much impact.

On Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink said the U.S. wanted to work closely with Thailand to ensure regional security and prosperity.

“I praised in great detail and repeatedly the Thai government’s ongoing and long-standing efforts to support refugees who have fled violence in Myanmar and the more recent efforts by Prime Minister Srettha’s government, in the ASEAN context, to again increase the humanitarian assistance across the border,” he said in a teleconference.

A camp for internally displaced people in Myanmar is seen across the Moei river from Mae Sot in western Thailand, Feb. 8, 2024. [AP]

Thailand’s government has maintained strong relations with Myanmar’s junta, officially known as the Military Council, since the February 2021 coup.

But the fact that a seminar was held in Parliament may point to a shift in stance in the Thai government, according to a former Burmese military officer who is now a political analyst, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“It is undeniable that the current Military Council regime is facing defeats on the battlefield, their credibility has declined, and now the democracy activists have been invited for discussions,” he said.

Rangsiman Rome, head of the lower house committee that organized the seminar, said he hoped the meeting would pave the way for a peaceful and sustainable solution to the Myanmar crisis, Reuters reported.

After the seminar, former Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat wrote on X that members of the Thai Parliament would continue to closely monitor the politics of Myanmar.

“A peaceful, democratic Myanmar is in harmony with Thailand's national interests, so we will regulate and support Thailand’s policies related to Myanmar through the legislative authority we have,” he wrote.


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