Three Thai men are marching from Chumphon town, in southern Thailand, to the gated walls of the Foreign Ministry in Bangkok in the hope of drumming up national support for their claim that their village Inthanin Kwang is on Thai soil.
Their three-week stroll is expected to be in vain. Thai officials familiar with the case, have backed Myanmar’s claim to Inthanin Kwang, which lies on the western bank of the Kra Buri River which has traditionally defined the border in the area according to an agreement signed between Britain and the then Kingdom of Siam in 1868. Myanmar troops raided the district in 2012 and arrested 92 Thais who had allegedly been lured to the district by land brokers, selling plots of land cheap for rubber plantations, according to the Bangkok Post.
Although no doubt a lost cause, the incident does highlight one fact – little has been done toofficially demarcate the Thai-Myanmar border over the past five-six decades.
Myanmar has not been similarly slow in defining its borders with its other neighbours – Bangladesh, India, China and Laos. The country has delineated its borders and signed border treaties with Bangladesh, China and Laos and has demarcated all but 100 kilometres of its 1,338 kilometre border with India. “The only remaining country is Thailand,” U Nyunt Maung Shein, Chairman of the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Myanmar-ISIS) told a recent seminar on Thai-Myanmar relations held in Bangkok. “I think our two governments need to look into this issue.”
The two governments can be forgiven for failing so far to look into the demarcation of their common border (length 2,107 kilometres, Myanmar’s second longest after only its border with China – 2,204 kilometers, according to Myanmar embassy sources.) Since Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, the Thai-Myanmar border area has been a hot bed of insurgencies and provided a sanctuary for numerous rebel groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU), Mon National Defence Army (MNDA), Shan State Army and others. Thailand’s stance towards these ethnic minority insurgencies along its border has been pragmatic, verging on opportunistic, and certainly a constant annoyance to the governments of Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw.
For years, Thailand was perceived by Myanmar governments as using the ethnic minority rebels to form a buffer zone along the volatile Thai-Myanmar border to assure that the fighting remained within Myanmar. The Myanmar military’s more ideologically-rooted struggle against the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), was a special concern for Thailand which wanted to prevent the CPB from joining forces with its own Communist Party of Thailand (CPT).
“It might have been correct during the Cold War period,” acknowledged Mr Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister (2009-2011), of the perception. “Many times when I met the then Prime Minister U Thein Sein, he brought a stack of papers for the then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and myself, with photographs of these meetings of various opposition groups in Chiang Mai (northern Thailand) and Mae Sot,” he said.
Kasit, talking to the same Bangkok seminar, hosted by the Institute of Security and International Studies-Thailand, said it took months for him and Abhisit to convince Thein Sein that Thailand was no longer supporting the rebel groups on their common border, and he sometimes had to smuggle insurgent leaders in to Bangkok to clarify their government’s stance towards them and to persuade them from using Thai soil for their activities.
Of course, such assurances might be hard for the Myanmar side to believe when Thailand continues to play host to approximately 140,000 Karen refugees living in nine camps on the Thai border. Some of the Karen refugees have been living in the border camps since 1984 when the Myanmar military launched an offensive against the KNU, culminating in the fall of their headquarters at Mannerplaw in 1994. The fighting forced thousands of Karen civilians to flee across the border into neighbouring Thailand.
Thousands still remain on Thai soil, posing a human rights challenge to Thailand which has sometimes expressed the desire to repatriate the refugees in light of the recent positive developments between the Myanmar government and the insurgencies.
“Now with the progress of peace there is an opportunity to do something for the return of the refugees, or integration into Thai society, or to become part and parcel of the migrant work force in Thailand,” Kasit said. “I would urge that we sit down together with the Thai agencies, international community and Myanmar embassy and discuss the refugees’ future.”
Since coming to power in March, 2011, President U Thein Sein’s government has worked hard on encouraging Myanmar’s insurgencies to accept ceasefires, although he has not yet succeeded in stopping the fighting, notably in the Kachin State and more recently in Kokang territory. The agreements have already borne fruit in terms of bringing a return of some semblance of normalcy to areas under the control of the Mon and the Karen, giving rise to hopes that work onborder demarcation in these areas could begin soon. “It depends on the two governments when they begin, but the southern border is the easiest part, to my thinking, because we have a treaty between the British and the Kingdom of Siam, signed in 1868, which delineates the boundary with three maps that extend from the (Ranong) area up to Myawaddy, on the Myanmar side, and Mae Sot, on the Thai side,” U Nyunt Maung Shein told Mizzima Weekly. “Because the maps already exist, if the two governments want to start at that place, they can do it,” he said.
Thailand and Myanmar have already delineated a 50 kilometre stretch of border between Chiang Rai province, Thailand, and Tachileik, Shan State, Myanmar. Delineating the remainder of the northern border may prove less easy. For instance, the Thai and Myanmar troops clashed over separate claims to the Mong Hsat district, Shan State, called Doi Lang by the Thais. The Thais took control of Doi Lang in 1987, and have refused to open negotiations on the disputed turf to date. “The Burmese cite British maps claiming the 30 square kilometre area is on the Burmese side, while the Thais say American maps say Doi Lang is in Thailand,” said Khuensai Jaiyen, director of the Pyidaungsu Institute for Peace and Dialogue, a research center based in Chiang Mai.
Khuensai, the founder of the Shan Herald New Agency, a rebel publication, opined that little progress will be made on Thai-Myanmar border demarcation until the government persuades the 16 ethnic minority insurgencies to sign a national cease fire agreement, the first stage of the government’s seven-step road map to resolving the insurgency issue. A meeting to discuss signing the agreement is scheduled on May 1-3 in Panghsang, capital of the Wa territory, with a follow up meeting to be held in Karen territory if the first one fails to deliver the ceasefire.
President U Thein Sein hopes to start a political dialogue with the groups by August, prior to the scheduled election in November. “Without the peace process completed by both sides, it will be quite difficult for either Thailand or Burma to discuss demarcation,” Khuensai said. “That is for sure.” Ultimately, getting Myanmar and Thai officials to the border areas to do the demarcation work requires safe government access, something that has not been available for the past six decades, and neither side should feel assured of until a peace agreement has been signed, sealed and delivered.
Until the national ceasefire is inked, and the process of border demarcation underway, it will be difficult to tackle the other common bilateral challenges the two countries face. “Without some progress and some understanding on the border demarcation, all the other connectivity issues will not be able to move forward,” Kasit said. “You don’t know where to put the bridge. You don’t know where to put the sign posts, the custom house, immigration offices and so on.”
Having that border infrastructure in place is necessary for jointly addressing the other bilateral problems challenging Thai-Myanmar relations, such as migrant labour, cross-border migration of diseases such as malaria, dengue and HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, wildlife trafficking, illegal logging and a good fashioned smuggling.
“The Myanmar-Thailand border demarcation will become a government priority after the election, not before,” predicted U Nyunt Maung Shein. “We have already done it with the other four neighbours so it is only natural that we should take this up.”
This Article first appeared in the April 30, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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