In less than a week, any sense of optimism about a possible peace process getting under way in Myanmar seems to have evaporated.
Only two days after an Asean summit in Jakarta on April 24 — a much-awaited event when coup-maker Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing attended to discuss a peace process with Asean leaders — Myanmar soldiers clashed with ethnic groups in areas close to the Thai border.
On April 27, about 250 Thai villagers in Mae Sam Laep village in Mae Sariang district, in the border province of Mae Hong Son, fled the skirmish.
Thai security forces and officials in Kanchanaburi province were alerted and preparing to deal with Myanmar villagers fleeing into Thailand.
Apparently, Myanmar is on the verge of a civil war as civilians in urban areas and a few ethnic groups in rural and Thai-Myanmar border areas turn against the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw.
Myanmar — once a rising star of Asean — plunged into a political and social crisis after the Tatmadaw staged a coup on Feb 1, when they ousted the civilian-led government, and arrested hundreds of protesters and civilian politicians, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
For almost three months, the Myanmar military has responded to these protests with violent crackdowns.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a non-profit human rights organisation based in Thailand, 759 people were killed as of April 30.
And the situation seems to be growing more complex; apart from political activists and civilians in urban areas, there are ethnic factions such as the Karen National Union (KNU) and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) which have launched attacks on the Myanmar army.
The attacks along the Thai-Myanmar border came as Asean, following its meeting, was preparing to send special envoys to Myanmar in a bid to jump-start a peace dialogue with various groups.
In Jakarta, Asean leaders on April 24 issued a collective statement referred to as a “five-point consensus” on the cessation of violence, the hosting of constructive dialogue among all parties, the designation of envoys to facilitate talks, and the provision of humanitarian assistance.
Although Asean’s five-point consensus can be seen as a step in the right direction, it is no longer enough to handle the political crisis in Myanmar.
Two days after the summit, the Myanmar government released a statement saying, “it will give careful consideration to suggestions made by Asean leaders when the situation returns to stability.”
Apparently, the Tatmadaw is buying time.
The Myanmar situation will be the test case for Asean — and a tough nut to crack.
Asean was credited for the help it gave Myanmar when it sent relief items and personnel after the country was attacked by Cyclone Nargis more than 12 years ago.
It remains to be seen what and how Asean’s special envoys can do to end the violence in Myanmar.
The stakes are high for Asean. Asean might need to review its non-interference principle if its peace process in Myanmar fails.
But the country which stands to be most affected if the gambit fails is Thailand — one of the founding members of Asean and the country’s closest neighbour.
Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha skipped the Asean meeting and sent Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai instead, which was criticised at the time. The actions of the Thai army also have been criticised.
After the coup in Myanmar, the army was reportedly accused by the KNU in Myanmar for supplying food to the Myanmar army.
Despite a Myanmar soldier firing a warning shot at a boat belonging to a Thai villager as it travelled on the Salween River on April 26, Thai army deputy spokesman Col Sirichan Ngathong said the Myanmar soldier force fired a shot “because of a misunderstanding”.
Thailand cannot afford to play a “non-interference” role as it stands to be heavily affected, especially provinces along the border.
If the situation in Myanmar turns into civil war, the skirmishes could last for years, possibly more than a decade.
Thailand has a responsibility to foster peace and it can start by telling the Tatmadaw that violence against civilians is not acceptable.