In recent years, Myanmar-Thailand relations have experienced a surge of positive bilateralism due to their common membership in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, the thaw in relations still leaves the boundary dispute between two countries largely unresolved. A major clash occurred in February 2001 and tension on the border still prevails. It’s critical to look at the history of this boundary dispute, problems that fester on the border and what implications these could have on Thai-Burma’s effort to demarcate the boundary? Whether the improving economic relations have lessened the tensions or not? What will be the likely future in terms of finding a solution?
Thailand and Myanmar share the long border of 2400 kilometres approximately, out of which around 60 kilometres only is demarcated. The problem lies in the crux of the ‘Burney Treaty’ which was signed in 1826 by Thailand and Britain after the colonisation of Burma in 1824, establishing the current boundary between the two countries. After the independence of Myanmar in 1948, Thailand disagreed with the demarcation emphasising on imposition of the treaty by the British. Since then the border has been at the heart of issues between two nations that in turn is amplified by problems like ethnic insurgency and illegal immigration. The February 2001 clashes which led to death of a dozen civilians and almost hundred Burmese soldiers were the manifestation of these deeper problems. Both the governments presented different accounts of the event as Myanmar expounded that the fight between the Tatmadaw and the Shan State Army (SSA) spilled into the Thai territory near Ban Pang Noon causing subsequent clashes, whereas Thai accounts elaborated that the clashes were provoked when Tatmadaw captured a Royal Thai Army (RTA) base at Ban Pang Noon. Skirmishes again occurred in May 2002 and SPDC was forced to close the border crossings from May to October of that year.
With the advent of Thai Rak Thai, new policy of engaging the neighbours came into force. With regard to Myanmar, Thaksin promoted the policy of ‘forward engagement’, whereby economic relations were to be given a priority. Thaksin eventually managed to replace General Watanachai and the RTA army chief General Surayud in 2002, the main instigators of the border war, after undertaking a fence mending trip to Yangon. Myanmar showed reciprocal interest in Thaksin’s overtures and since then stability in economic relations have been achieved. Resultantly, Thailand is now the biggest investor in Myanmar and their bilateral trade touched $2.21 billion in the first three quarters of FY 2009-10. Thailand is a major consumer of the Burmese gas as it buys approximately 30% of the net output.
Surprisingly, harmonious economic relations have had a limited impact on the question of boundary dispute as major problems related to cross border activities still remain unaddressed. The Joint Boundary Committee (JBC) established in 1993 has achieved a limited success and the last meeting was conducted in 2005 with no follow-up thereafter. Amongst the rampant threats the main ones are trafficking, illegal logging, drugs smuggling and ethnic insurgency. There are around 500,000 illegal Burmese migrants in Thailand and the accompanying social issues of health, crime and unemployment add to the government’s worries significantly. Drug trafficking is also a serious problem for Mae Sot is now one of the major drug distribution hubs and the Methamphetamines (Ya Ba) is considered number one security risk in Thailand. On Myanmar’s side there are similar grievances against Thailand on illegal logging across the borders and lax response to the insurgency problem. Moreover the quest of the Myanmar army to defeat various insurgents groups often flares up tensions on the borders. For instance, Burmese offensive in the Kokang region against the United Wa State Army (UWSA) on 23rd and 24th April 2010, led the Thai army to close down a border town of Nor Leang. Such recurrent incidences have deepened the uncertainties causing delay in the demarcation process.
Being members of ASEAN and obligatory to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), Myanmar and Thailand will have to find out a peaceful bilateral solution to their border dispute. It would not be wrong to claim that both countries are increasingly adopting peaceful means of finding an optimal solution as the JBC recently prepared a negotiation framework for the Parliament’s reading that is awaiting consideration from the cabinet. It is possible that Myanmar would be more forthcoming this time as in January 2010, it accepted to resolve the maritime border dispute with Bangladesh on the basis of ‘equity’. However solution to the border remains mired in uncertainty as nationalism has started to take root in the Thai society, adequately displayed by the Thai-Cambodian border crisis in 2008. Moreover until a democratic government is established in Myanmar, stability on the borders will remain elusive and given the fact that RTA operates almost independently of the government in ruling, the Thai army could take radical actions of curbing the menace which could spiral the tensions out of control. Both Thailand and Myanmar in the near future will have to deal with ASEAN’s community spirit on one hand and national sentiments on the other, therefore demarcation of boundary is indeed going to be a cumbersome process as both history and the future have to be weighed in equally.