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Former Thai PM Thaksin seeks mediation role in Myanmar conflict

FILE - Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra arrives at Don Muang airport in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug. 22, 2023.
FILE - Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra arrives at Don Muang airport in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug. 22, 2023.

Thailand’s influential former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has met with key figures in the resistance to Myanmar’s ruling junta with a goal of mediating a resolution to the armed conflict that has raged in Myanmar for more than three years.

Sources who chose to remain anonymous due to security concerns told VOA’s Burmese Service that Thaksin held informal meetings with leaders of Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government, or NUG, during visits to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand in March and April.

The sources said Thaksin, whose political party now heads the coalition governing Thailand, has met separately with representatives of various ethnic armed groups from Myanmar, including the Karen National Union, or KNU, Karenni National Progressive Party and the Kachin National Organization.

During one of the meetings, Thaksin met with General Yawd Serk of the Shan State Reconstruction Council/Shan State Army, the RCSS/SSA, according to another source close to the armed group. Serk was recently implicated in a sting operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration involving arms for nuclear materials as reported by VOA in March.

According to the anonymous source, Thaksin expressed a desire to mediate between Myanmar’s military junta and Ethnic Resistance Organizations, or EROs, which have been fighting the junta since it seized power from an elected government in February 2021.

Thaksin has reportedly requested permission to visit Myanmar, but there has, so far, been no official response from the junta. VOA has not been able to reach either the junta or Thaksin’s office for comment as of the publication of this article.

The Bangkok Post quoted Thailand’s new foreign minister, Maris Sangiampongsa, on Tuesday confirming Thaksin’s meetings and saying the talks were, "at a personal level and not part of the Thai government's policy towards its neighbor."

Maris went on to say the Myanmar junta views Thaksin as someone who "can help" end the conflict because of his connections and influence. Maris made the remarks at Thailand’s Government House before a weekly Cabinet meeting.

In a statement to VOA on Monday, Kyaw Zaw Wai, a spokesperson for the NUG president's office, expressed appreciation for Thailand's efforts within ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to find a solution that reflects the will of the Myanmar people.

He also acknowledged Thailand's humanitarian efforts, including the provision of food and shelter for thousands of refugees during fighting in Myawaddy, a strategically important town on the Thai-Myanmar border which recently fell to resistance forces.

Kyaw Zaw Wai also said that the NUG has asked Thailand to increase engagement with both the NUG and the EROs, particularly concerning the delivery of humanitarian aid to displaced people in Myanmar.

"Thaksin's visit may aim to discuss the situation in Myanmar and potentially mediate toward a resolution," said Sai Htun Aung Lwin, a Myanmar and Shan ethnic affairs expert.

Speaking to VOA by phone on Friday, he emphasized that Thaksin’s involvement in Myanmar’s struggles will have significant implications for the country’s neighbors, which have vested interests in the outcome of the conflict.

"It's crucial to consider Thaksin's role, especially given his party Pheu Thai’s current governance. Additionally, Thaksin's statements may provide insights into Thai foreign policy objectives, potentially impacting border stability and conflict resolution," he said.

Lwin pointed out that Thaksin is widely perceived to have close ties to Thailand's new foreign minister, suggesting that his approach to the Myanmar conflict likely will be closely aligned with that of the Thai government.

“The former prime minister has had a longstanding relationship with former Myanmar military generals and political figures close to the military, as well as a good relationship with ethnic armed groups, especially the RCSS and KNU," Lwin added.

During an interview with Reuters in late April, current Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin suggested that the junta may be more amenable to peace negotiations following a series of military setbacks in several parts of Myanmar.

"The current regime is starting to lose some strength," Srettha said in the interview. "Maybe it's time to reach out and make a deal."

NUG presidential office spokesperson Kyaw Zaw also expressed appreciation for the support his group has received from the Thai government and acknowledged “the challenges it faces regarding Myanmar.”

“We regard this support highly and view the Thai government's increased engagement with various stakeholders as a positive development,” he said. “As the new foreign minister assumes office, we trust and anticipate that addressing Myanmar's affairs will remain a significant priority.”