Myanmar refugees, who fled military crackdowns, on Thai border

This photo taken on January 15, 2022 shows Myanmar refugees, who fled a surge in violence as the military cracks down on rebel groups, with food aid next to a river on the Thai border in Thailand's Mae Sot district. (Photo: STR / AFP)

Separatists, Conflict and Refugees: Geopolitics Along Thailand and India’s Myanmar Border

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The February 2021 coup in Myanmar has thrown up a new raft of problems for Thailand and India. The re-assembling of Indian separatist groups in Myanmar, the spillover from armed conflict and the arrival of refugees in Thailand and India are just the tip of the iceberg.

Since the coup in Myanmar in 2021, both Thailand and India have witnessed an increase in armed violence at their doorstep and a consequent upsurge in the number of refugees from Myanmar. In fact, of all Myanmar’s neighbours, both countries have had the largest number of Myanmar residents seeking sanctuary — almost all of the 39,000 refugee movements recorded by the UNHCR — because they are located next to the administrative divisions in Myanmar with the highest amount of and most intense armed fighting.

Historically, the borders between Myanmar and its neighbours, Thailand and India, have been volatile and restive. Separatist and other armed groups originating from all three countries operate(d) in and control(led) swathes of these frontiers. At the same time, people fleeing armed conflict and structural violence in Myanmar have long sought refuge in these two countries.

For decades, Thailand has attempted to contain the armed conflict perpetrated by internal and external actors along its Burmese border. It has used the ethnic armed organisations along the Burmese border as a strategic buffer against both the Burmese state and the Communist Party of Thailand.

However, from the late 1980s onwards, Thailand’s border engagement with Myanmar transformed into one of trade, shared infrastructure and special economic zones (the first official Thai special economic zone, Mae Sot on the border with Myanmar, was announced in 2014). In addition, both militaries have bonded over similar histories of military intervention in politics, and enjoy a special and close relationship.

Since the coup in Myanmar, the Thai border has experienced spillover from armed conflict on the Burmese side of the border. In April last year, the Myanmar army fired warning shots at a Thai boat. In a separate incident that same month, hundreds of villagers on the Thai side of the border were evacuated after the Karen National Union, an ethnic armed organisation, attacked a Burmese army post. In December, there was an exchange of artillery fire between the Myanmar and Thai armies. There have also been reports of stray artillery shells landing on Thai soil.

In addition, the UNHCR reported 17,000 refugee movements arising from Myanmar military airstrikes in Karen State in Myanmar to Thailand in the past year. These refugees were not permitted to join the other 80,000 in refugee camps who had arrived between the 1980s and 2010s. They were later returned to Myanmar. According to this author’s interview with a recently resettled refugee, however, there is an undocumented number of refugees from other parts of Myanmar arriving in Thailand. The Thai government is allowing them to be resettled in the United States, Australia and France.

The increase in armed conflict along the Thai border endangers Thai civilians and may lead to new tensions between the countries. However, Thailand is keen to maintain its trading and diplomatic relationship with Myanmar as a whole, and its close relationship with Myanmar’s military commanders. In addition, its border security, and economic and political circumstances are strongly tied to Myanmar’s stability. Consequently, Thailand is using quiet diplomacy in its engagement with the Myanmar regime.

Thailand’s position is that its security and prosperity depend on that of Myanmar. India needs a strong and stable Myanmar that observes strict neutrality between India and China and cooperates with India in the fight against Indian separatist factions. The question is whether Myanmar will be able to serve these national and geopolitical interests while in the throes of protracted internal conflict.

Like Thailand, India’s concerns over its border with Myanmar revolve around the presence of separatist factions. However, the worry here is about armed separatist Naga, Mizo, Meitei and Assamese groups from India — such as the People’s Liberation Army, the Kangla Yawol Kanna Lup and the People’s Republican Party of Kangleipak — operating in Myanmar and engaging in insurgent activities in northeast India. In 2018, it was estimated that they had established 15 to 20 camps in Myanmar. Although these camps were largely dismantled in 2019 by a joint operation between the Myanmar and Indian armies, the Myanmar army has recently re-established ties with them as they either returned to the previous camps or established new ones. At present, at least four of these militant groups have regrouped in Myanmar’s Naga-inhabited region. The Myanmar army intends to deploy them as proxies to combat local ethnic armed organisations opposing its rule. In this arrangement, the separatist groups will have a safe training and regrouping zone beyond the reach of the Indian army and will be able to travel to China for training and to procure weapons.

The Indian government fears that these militant groups will attempt to establish new links and supply routes to the northeast of the country and renew their insurgent activity in the region. In fact, from August 2021 onwards, fresh violence and protests against Prime Minister Modi’s administration occurred in the northeast. New Delhi is concerned that the insurgents regrouping in Myanmar will bring about more separatist activities.

New Delhi’s relationship with Myanmar is largely influenced by its desire to contain the insurgent activities of separatist factions operating cross-border. Myanmar, though, has played it both ways. It has destroyed Indian insurgent camps but continues to be tolerant towards these camps when they are re-established to use them as bargaining tools against India.

In addition, India fears that with China’s covert assistance (hosting, training and visiting in Myanmar) to these groups over the years, Beijing will use this against Indian interests. As such, India’s approach to the coup and the Myanmar junta has also been one of diplomacy and appeasement.

This approach is complicated by the arrival of over 20,000 refugees from Myanmar since the coup. Not wanting to be perceived by the Myanmar military regime as supporting the resistance in Myanmar, New Delhi cautioned its four northeastern states against taking in refugees unless absolutely necessary. However, local communities with cross-border ethnic and kinship ties strongly protested the order, and have disregarded the advice of the capital.  

Both Thailand and India are bound by and connected to Myanmar through their borders. The re-assembling of Indian separatist groups in Myanmar, the spillover from armed conflict and the arrival of refugees in both countries are just the tip of the iceberg. The conflict in Myanmar will become chronic, and the Myanmar military will increasingly resort to indiscriminate airstrikes to quell the resistance. Consequently, both Thailand and India will be caught up in a drawn-out and progressively turbulent struggle at their borders with Myanmar. Thailand’s position is that its security and prosperity depend on that of Myanmar. India needs a strong and stable Myanmar that observes strict neutrality between India and China and cooperates with India in the fight against Indian separatist factions. The question is whether Myanmar will be able to serve these national and geopolitical interests while in the throes of protracted internal conflict.

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Su-Ann Oh is a Visiting Fellow of the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.