Friday, May 9, 2008

Burma cyclone: Lack of aid relief spells refugee crisis for Thailand

The sun has set on another day in Burma. Reuters lists some key developments:
  1. Myanmar turns back Qatari rescue team
  2. Thai PM cancels talks on aid with junta
  3. U.N. says 1.5 million people "severely affected"
  4. U.S. outraged by Myanmar government's slow response
The second point is revealing. Money quote:
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej cancelled a planned trip to Myanmar this weekend after the junta's announcement that it would not welcome foreign aid workers, just hours after he said he would go.

"After they said today they would not welcome foreign staff, there is no point of me going there," Samak said.
Recent Thai governments have bent over backwards to appease, accommodate, and even praise Burma's military junta. Recall General Sonthi's words of encouragement for the junta on the eve of the violent crackdown against protesting monks in September*; remarks by Thai PM Samak's in defense of the junta in March; a recent statement by the Thai Foreign Minister in which he indicated that pushing for human rights in Burma would take a backseat to pursuing Thai economic interests; and comments attributed to HM the King of Thailand published in the New Light of Myanmar concerning the King's meeting last week with Myanmar PM Thein Sein. The pattern is clear: the government of Thailand is not felt inclined to raise human rights issues with the leadership of Burma. Moreover, Thais have done little to protect Burmese migrant workers living in Thailand.

Cancelling a state visit could be interpreted as an expression of disappointment and displeasure. The fact that the Thai Prime Minister abruptly called off a trip to Burma, indicates that Thailand is seriously concerned about the lack of aid reaching Burma.

So why is the government of Thailand now concerned about humanitarian plight of the Burmese? What has changed?

The Thai government may now realize that the Burmese crisis could hit home. If the Burmese do not receive the assistance they need from the international community, they cannot get back on their feet. In this event, many of the survivors will not stick around their destroyed towns and villages in Burma and suffer or die quietly. Many of those with the means to escape will pick up and leave Burma. By the thousands -- and then tens of thousands -- Burmese will head for Thailand. One report out of Rangoon indicated that rich Burmese are already selling jewelry in order to have enough funds to fund their escape to Thailand.**

Thailand is likely to pay a high price if Myanmar does not immediately accept the kind of large-scale international relief aid urgently required.
* My stories and interviews concerning the September 2007 monks protests are listed here.
** On the streets of Rangoon, Thai bhat are in high demand, and the street price of gold -- Burmese are selling their jewelry -- has dropped by a quarter.
Note: Refugees aside, a cholera epidemic in Burma could conceivably impact Thailand also.
Update: Responding to this post, Bangkok Pundit blogged: "I agree. It is the same dynamic between China-North Korea and South Africa-Zimbabwe. A sudden collapse of the Burmese regime would send even more refugees from Burma to Thailand and Thailand will do everything in its power to avoid that."

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