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Bangkok backs Myanmar as Rohingya clampdown intensifies

February 24, 2018

Thailand will continue to back neighbor Myanmar even as the latter clamps down on an uprising in its Rohingya province. Thailand's ambassador to Myanmar spoke with DW about Bangkok’s role in the ongoing conflict.

Myanmar soldiers stand guard in Maungdaw in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state
Image: Getty Images/AFP

Despite international outcry at Myanmar's treatment of its Rohingya minority, Thailand continues to hold fast to its promise to not interfere. 

Asked about Thailand's stance on the Myanmar army's widely criticized "clearance operations" targeting Rohingya civilians in western Myanmar since last August, Thailand's new ambassador to Myanmar, Jukr Boon-Long, told DW his government will continue to back its northern neighbor.

Jukr Boon-Long, Thailand's ambassador to Myanmar
Jukr Boon-Long, Thailand's ambassador to Myanmar Image: Jukr Boon-Long

"Thailand recognizes the rights of Myanmar to defend itself against terrorist attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) that have escalated communal tensions in Rakhine State and triggered the exodus of people from the conflict areas," Boon-Long said.

In a stark reminder of the ongoing conflict, three bombs exploded early on Saturday in the capital of Myanmar's Rakhine state.

Thailand remains close to Myanmar within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an organization that follows a policy of not interfering in the affairs of other bloc members.

Bangkok has been supportive of the new apparently civilian regime of Aung San Suu Kyi, but at the same time it shares with its northern neighbor a strong military presence within its own democratic institutions and a penchant for placing security over democracy.

Infografik Rohingya Bevölkerung ENG

Bangkok keeping its options open

"While sharing the concerns of the international community over what has transpired in Rakhine State, Thailand believes that a constructive engagement with Myanmar, both government and military, is vital," Boon-Long said.

The majority of Myanmar's 1.1-million Rohingya population has fled across the border to Bangladesh, following attacks on security posts by insurgents that triggered a military crackdown the UN calls ethnic cleansing.

Myanmar authorities deny committing atrocities but have also blocked UN staff from investigating the conflict zone in northern Rakhine.

The UN investigator of human rights in Myanmar recently accused Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of complicity in the deaths of Rohingya Muslims. Yanghee Lee said it was possible that Myanmar's de facto leader could eventually face charges relating to genocide or crimes against humanity in an international tribunal.

The US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in late January urged the Security Council to ensure Myanmar's military answers for its campaign against the Rohingya.

Maintaining cordial relations

Thailand and the US undertook their annual Cobra Gold military drills in Thailand in February, with Bangkok controversially inviting representatives from the Myanmar military as observers.

In mid-February Bangkok awarded Myanmar's army chief a royal decoration, despite allegations of crimes by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya Muslims.

The Burma Human Rights Network said Thailand had crossed a "red line" by granting the award.

"As a next-door neighbor of Myanmar, Thailand attaches great importance to maintaining a close and cordial relationship between the two countries at all levels and dimensions. This policy remains unchanged regardless of the change of the Myanmar government," Boon-Long said.

Two armed ethnic minority groups in Myanmar in mid-February signed a ceasefire agreement with the government and military, the first signatories under the National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The two rebel groups were the New Mon State Party and the Lahu Democratic Union, both based near the border with Thailand. But the majority of 20 armed rebel groups in the country have yet to agree with the government to stop fighting.

Flood threat to Rohingya camp

Thailand a place of refuge

Thailand has long been considered a place of refuge by many Rohingya and other minority groups fleeing persecution in Myanmar, also a Buddhist-majority country.

But it has come under increased international criticism after a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in January was scathing about the conditions of tens of thousands of fishermen in Thailand, most of them poor migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

In response, the US downgraded Thailand in its annual Trafficking in Persons report to Tier 3, the lowest possible status.

When asked about Bangkok's policy on undocumented Myanmar workers in Thailand, Boon-Long said Thailand has a long standing policy to respect basic rights and promote welfare of Myanmar workers in Thailand. "They play an important role in driving the country's economy."

"Over the years, the two governments have been engaging in constructive dialogues to strengthen labor cooperation and address challenges and issues facing Myanmar workers in Thailand," Boon-Long said.

The Thai government has introduced measures to encourage the legal employment of migrant workers and that registration of undocumented migrant workers is expected to be completed on 30 June 2018, he added.

"With all of these efforts, Myanmar workers can rest assured that they can work in Thailand while enjoying full rights and benefits under related laws of Thailand," the ambassador underlined.

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Jo Harper Journalist and author specializing in Poland