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Thailand says deliveries of humanitarian aid to war-wracked Myanmar are expected to start soon

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MAE SOT, Thailand — Thailand expects to open up a humanitarian corridor in about a month to deliver aid to suffering civilians in war-torn Myanmar, Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said Thursday after inspecting the planned staging area in the northern Thai province of Tak.

The plan, initiated by Thailand with the endorsement of Myanmar and other fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is relatively small in scale and initially would reach just a tiny proportion of the 2.6 million civilians the U.N. estimates are displaced throughout Myanmar.

Myanmar is wracked by a nationwide armed conflict that began after the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 and suppressed widespread nonviolent protests that sought a return to democratic rule.

Large areas of the country, especially frontier areas, are now contested or controlled by anti-military resistance forces, pro-democracy fighters allied with armed ethnic minority organizations that have been fighting for greater autonomy for decades.

Thai officials have said they expect about 20,000 displaced people will benefit from the plan in its initial stage. The Thai and Myanmar Red Cross societies would implement distribution, to be monitored by the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management.

Other details of the cross-border aid plan remain incomplete or unrevealed, but Parnpree described it at a news conference as a government-to-government deal, meaning activities on the Myanmar side of the border will be handled by that country’s ruling military council.

The ongoing hostilities, however, make unlikely any expansion of what is considered a pilot project, confined for now to a small area just across the river border from Thailand.

“We have long been calling for a program of direct cross-border humanitarian assistance to the refugees and civilians truly in need of help,” said Nay Phone Latt, a spokesperson for Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government, the leading political body of the anti-military resistance.

He rejected the Thai plan, however, urging that the aid instead go through the ethnic minority groups that control much of the border area, and charging that previous efforts to assist displaced person had been diverted to help the military.

Asst. Prof. Surachanee Sriyai, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, also doubts that Myanmar’s military government has the will or the competence to run a legitimate assistance program. Neither the Thai nor the Myanmar Red Cross is capable of dealing with delivering assistance in such complicated circumstances, she believes.

At his news conference in Mae Sot, in Tak province, Parnpree defended Thailand’s approach, saying, “If we don’t start with the government, eventually, if we start with other people, we will have to come back to start with the government anyway.

“We will not interfere with their internal affairs,” said Parnpree, declaring it was up to Myanmar to try to solve its own internal problems. “Our objective is to help in relation to humanitarian issues only.”

In other forums he has acknowledged that the Thai initiative has deep roots in regional geopolitics. Speaking last month at the Diplomacy Dialogue on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, he said that with no end in sight to Myanmar’s conflict, “The fear among the regional countries is Myanmar becoming increasingly fragmented and becoming an arena for major-power competition.”

As Myanmar’s eastern neighbor, Thailand especially fears an influx of refugees.

Parnpree said ASEAN needs to actively push to implement what it calls the Five-Points Consensus, which it agreed just a few months after the army’s 2021 takeover in Myanmar.

The agreement called for the immediate cessation of violence, a dialogue among all concerned parties, mediation by an ASEAN special envoy, provision of humanitarian aid through ASEAN channels, and a visit to Myanmar by the special envoy to meet all concerned parties.

Myanmar’s generals, despite initially assenting to the consensus, failed to act on it.

Parnpree told his Davos audience that while it was desirable to have Myanmar return to the path of democracy, it was meanwhile imperative to address its peoples’ humanitarian needs.

He said Thailand hopes its aid plan “will be the building block for constructive dialogue and engagement within Myanmar and between Myanmar and the international community as the process goes forward.”

An aid worker in Mae Sot who has been involved for about a decade in humanitarian activities involving displaced people in Myanmar’s Kayin state, where the project will be implemented, described what he knows so far about the plan as a good initiative but far too limited, given huge numbers of displaced people across Myanmar.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared interference in his work from the authorities, he blamed Myanmar’s military for the humanitarian crisis and said they should not be involved at all in the assistance plan. He added that he believed Myanmar’s military authorities were incapable of carrying out such a program, charging that had failed to deliver assistance to people in need during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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