Post-Coup Exodus 2.0

by mohingamatters

On 10th Feb 2024, the junta declared that the State Administration Council (SAC), is going to enforce the conscription law. While the exact rationale behind this decision is unclear outside the junta’s inner circle, the implications are dire and far-reaching. The most visible consequence of this is people leaving the country, both legally and illegally.

Since the military coup of 2021, the flight of personnel and money from Myanmar to abroad has been a common phenomenon. Post-coup political oppression and lack of employment opportunities pushed the middle class to try to leave the country legally, and more disadvantaged people to leave illegally since 2021 and it has increased with the removal of COVID restrictions in neighboring countries. The elites, including the richest families in the country, have been moving their families and assets outside the country too. People from conflict-affected areas are also finding leaving towards non-affected areas alone is not enough to work and send money back to their families living as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and attempt to leave overseas.

While the exact reasons are varying, the number of people trying to leave Myanmar since the coup is substantial, and this increased capital flight abroad and reduced domestic production capacity (which is directly related to the labor supply) led to a severe decline of Myanmar Kyat (MMK) over past three years, with the currency being valued today at one-third of pre-coup levels. Furthermore, while this is not the only root cause, the ongoing flight led to a vicious cycle between people increasingly leaving because of lack of employment and businesses increasingly finding it difficult to operate (and hampering job creation) because of labor shortage.

However, most people leaving the country over the past three years can afford to plan and formulate their strategies. But this time, panic and desperation overwhelm people for valid reasons. Getting conscripted or even getting a mention could lead to a range of outcomes from facing torture and death at the hands of SAC to at the very least getting extorted to a large sum of money to postpone conscription. With even the most favorable outcome the latter, it is reasonable that people would rather spend their life’s savings on leaving the country and living freely. Also, in the three weeks since the announcement of plans for conscription, the arbitrary arrest of civilians or extortions to get out of arrest are getting more frequent in SAC-controlled territories and this stirred up the public panic.

For SAC, if the aim of enacting conscription policy was to strengthen their position in the civil war, that proved counterproductive as enlistment towards anti-SAC armed groups exploded with the announcement. Moreover, the junta has been pushed deeper towards defeat because there is no stability across the country and this law only further panics the people and destabilizes society.

The impact of people leaving and trying to leave is most visible in passport issuing authorities and in the Embassy of Thailand in Myanmar. At the passport issuing authority office in Mandalay, a stampede led to fatalities. The Thai Embassy, facing an exponential surge in demand for visas, restricts the issuance of 400 visas per day. Thailand, as a neighboring country with similar cultures and being part of ASEAN which allows two weeks of visa-on-arrival for Myanmar nationals, has long been the recipient of the first stage of human and financial flights from Myanmar and has been facing legal and illegal entries through different means since the coup, and it could be argued that this has favorable consequences to Thai business sector and concerning security consequences for Thai authorities. A week after the announcement of the conscription mandate in Myanmar, Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin remarked, “They (Myanmar nationals) are welcome if they enter the country legally. But if they sneak into the country illegally, legal action will be taken against them. I already discussed the matter with security agencies”, while also allaying concerns that Myanmar immigrants are going to take jobs away from the locals.  

From an economic perspective, while there could be cases of individual Thai workers losing out due to this influx of Myanmar migrants, we believe that the overall Thai economy will benefit greatly from the inflow of both skilled and educated workers and general laborers.

However, from a security viewpoint, it is understandable that this sudden and dramatic increased inflow of immigrants (both legal and illegal) would pose a headache for Thai authorities. Since the coup of 2021, the failed state situation in Myanmar has empowered warlords at the border regions and their partner international criminal networks to expand their operations. For Thailand, the scam factories such as KK Park and Shwe Kokko in the neighboring town of Myawaddy, just across the river from its borders, proved to be difficult security problems with international criminal gangs behind these operations using Thailand as human trafficking and smuggling routes, and setting up fronts in Thailand. It stands to reason that the criminal elements along the Thai border would now further exploit the current fear and desperation stemming from the conscription law. Many trying to flee the junta’s conscription could fall victim to human trafficking and modern slavery.

For the international community, this latest exodus of people from Myanmar is yet another reminder of how the coup in Myanmar has cross-border consequences. However, regardless of the magnitude of challenges faced by Thailand or other countries, that remains paltry compared to the suffering of the people of Myanmar.

Do we have a solution to alleviate this suffering for the people of Myanmar and the security concerns of the international community?

The first step would require the removal of the junta.

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