Rakhine crisis: Lessons from Thailand

When Myanmar's commander-in-chief Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing was here last week for a series of top-level meetings with his Thai counterparts, the recent crisis in Rakhine state -- clashes between Myanmar authorities and Rohingya militants -- dominated the discussions both in Khon Kaen and Bangkok.

However, during his meeting on Thursday with Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, the level of comfort was so great that both sides dwelt at length on the Rakhine conflict, exchanging views extensively on the overall challenges. Thailand understands well Myanmar's position that it needs time and space to effectively manage and settle a sensitive issue that involves standards of living, communal and religious relations, as well as ethnic identity.

That is why Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing's trip this time concentrated on ways and means to mitigate the terrorist threat and strengthen cooperation with Thailand. Most importantly, they also touched on the way forward -- what will be the future of Myanmar and its relations with neighbouring countries and ethnic groups, say, in the next two or three decades?

Although his original four-day visit was halved due to the Rakhine conflict, Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing managed to meet and talk about future cooperation with all the top Thai military brass, including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Supreme Commander Gen Surapong Suwanna-at. Interestingly, both countries have decided to further strengthen their cooperation despite numerous unresolved challenges such as their 2,401-kilometre-long unmarked common border, narcotics smuggling, border management and a disputed natural park.

After the meeting, Gen Prawit urged the Thai media to use the word "Bengali" to describe the "terrorists" operating in northwestern Myanmar. Nay Pyi Taw does not recognise the Rohingya people as one of the country's 135 official ethnic groups, and says they are Bangladeshi citizens. Following the Aug 25 attacks on security outposts in Rakhine, the Myanmar government issued media guidelines that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the insurgency group who claimed the responsibility, must be called terrorists, not insurgents.

Since then, the term "extremist Bengali terrorists" has been used by official media, and other media outlets have been encouraged to follow. In the past several days, fake news and disinformation about the Rakhine situation have spread on social media. For the government, any statements deemed as undermining the country's security and backing the terrorists will be punished.

Thailand's long experience in handling external pressure resulting from internal conflicts, civilian casualties and displaced persons has taught the country's security apparatus the best practices in tackling conflicts. At the meeting with Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the Thai side shared its three-decades-long experience, focusing on coordinating various agencies from within and cooperative efforts with the outside world.

Obviously, the role of the international community and its perceived role in Rakhine state is a controversial one. During the refugee crisis in the 1980s, Thailand had a similar predicament. It took years of personal trust and ties to overcome the mutual fear and mistrust with foreign humanitarian organisations. At this point, the Myanmar authorities are suspicious of these groups' representatives. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis that hit Myanmar in 2008, the government of Thein Sein allowed representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and international organisations to work with Myanmar authorities to provide aid. That experience will be useful to and provide context for the current government.

The Thai side has encouraged Myanmar to have an open mind and work with United Nations-related agencies. At one point, Thailand said that its trust built during a difficult time with the UN agencies bore fruit in increasing understanding and awareness of Thailand's situation. Several senior UN officials were in junior positions during the refugee crisis and were helpful in providing reality checks.

In retrospect, Thailand's ability to repatriate nearly three million refugees from neighbouring countries within three decades is testimony to the fact that such problems are a time-consuming process that one country alone cannot solve. Perseverance and sustainable assistance are crucial for long-term solutions and rehabilitation of areas affected by prolonged conflicts.

At this time, Myanmar-Thai ties are very robust. "There is no big problem between our two countries," Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing told Gen Prawit at their meeting.

In the coming months, they will intensify cooperation on intelligence and counter-terrorism training. Thailand has encouraged Myanmar to take advantage of the annual US-Thai military exercise, Cobra Gold, of which Myanmar has been invited to participate in since 2013. In addition, the Thai and Myanmar navies are cooperating in the patrol and surveillance of their coastal areas to stem human trafficking from Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Gen Prawit was confident that the conflict in Rakhine State, which has forced about 73,000 Rohingya to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh and resulted in nearly 400 fatalities, will not cause any refugee influx to Thailand by sea or land.

However, Gen Prayut and Gen Prawit said if there are any displaced people from Rakhine, Thailand would take them in on humanitarian grounds, a practice the country has pursued all along, and they will be repatriated once normalcy is restored.


Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

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