Thailand’s Porous Borders Spark Fear of a New Covid Wave

Migrants desperate for work bring coronavirus along with job skills

By: Murray Hunter

Thailand, which has earned praise as one of the few countries to handle the Covid-19 pandemic well, could face trouble from across the country’s porous borders. Over this past week, Thais have become jittery over the numbers of Thai nationals who have been illegally re-entering the country from Myanmar across a shallow river in Mae Sai in Chiang Mai Province.

With most Thai bars and nightspots either permanently closed or empty, many entertainment workers who didn’t get government support during the pandemic went across illegally to Myanmar to service VIPs from Myanmar and Thai customers at hotels and casinos in towns like Tachileik and Myawaddy, adjacent to Mae Sai on the other side of the river, forms the international border between the two countries.

Rising numbers of workers have been returning illegally since authorities in Myanmar reimposed a curfew and reportedly closed entertainment outlets until further notice. Myanmar is currently experiencing a spike in new cases of almost 2,000 a day, with more than 4,000 cumulative deaths to date. That compares ominously with Thailand, which has suffered only 4,000 official cases, the majority of them from overseas returnees testing positive in quarantine. The country has suffered only 60 deaths official attributed to Covid, with a run of more than 100 days without a local case

So far, there have been more than a dozen known Thais illegally returning to Thailand, who once across the border traveled to nearby Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, visiting restaurants, night spots, shopping centers, and hotels. Some took flights to Bangkok and onward to their respective home towns. Thai health authorities have ordered emergency health centers opened nationwide, appealed for those who have illegally crossed the border back to Thailand to come forward and be tested, and are undertaking extensive contact tracing.

There have to date been reports of a small number of local transmissions although they spiked up sharply among returnees from Myanmar’s Thachilek township, with 39 infections reported so far in seven provinces, 26 of them in Chiang Rai alone. The army plans to use CCTV-equipped drones to patrol the border in an effort to stop the crossings.

In the town of Phicit, there has been a rush of people who have recently frequented bars and pubs, taking Covid-19 tests at the local hospital. Hotel bookings at both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai for the upcoming holidays have been cancelled, with the provincial government offering THB100,000 to any tourist visiting Chiang Mai being diagnosed with Covid as a result of their visit.

This is not the first-time porous borders between Thailand and Myanmar have led to fear and panic. Last September, with a rise in Covid cases in Myanmar, there were fears that illegal border crossers into Prachuap Khiri Khuan and Kanchanaburi Provinces would bring a wave of the coronavirus. When some schoolchildren from Myanmar showed symptoms in a local Thai school, authorities closed all schools down for a week for intensive disinfection. This new threat led to the cancellation of hotel bookings in the area over a long weekend at the time.

Although land crossings along the Thai-Myanmar border are officially closed, there are hundreds of tracks and waterways where locals cross over illegally for trade and family visitations. This has not ceased even though the army and border patrol police have stepped up patrols and vigilance along border areas.

A similar situation occurred along the Thai-Malaysian Border in Narathiwat during the pandemic. Formal border crossings at Sungei Kolok and Tak Bai have been closed, except for freight. However, with the Movement Control Order (MCO) in Malaysia bringing an effective lockdown, and Thai authorities restricting the number of returnees per day back into Thailand, many crossed the Kolok River illegally to circumvent the restrictions, as most had no incomes. This at the time led to more than 1,000 local transmissions, which required a major health authority search and testing operation to keep under control.

With Malaysian goods now drying up along Thai border towns over the last few months, and many holes in the border fences along the Kedah/Perlis stretch of the border with Songkhla patched up, much illegal traffic along this border is now under control.

Last July, an Egyptian air force officer, excepted from quarantine measures, caused a scare in Rayong just before a long weekend holiday. The officer, on a day mission to and from China and using the airport at U-Tapao in Rayong as a base, visited a local shopping center. After he was found to be positive for Covid-19, panic set in throughout Rayong with thousands tested, leading to mass cancellations of holidays booked for the long weekend.

Thailand has had additional concerns over people who illegally crossed into Malaysia and those who were given exceptions from formal immigration and quarantine processes. With this latest scare and local transmissions occurring from the Mae Sai cluster of illegal returnees, Thailand is reminded just how porous the country’s borders really are – with 16 undocumented Chinese nationals caught crossing the Mekong River at Nong Khai by boat over the weekend. Cambodians are still illegally crossing the borders at Sa Kaeo and Si Sa Ket to work illegally for minimum wages in jobs Thais won’t do. Laotians are coming across the Mekong into Ubon Ratchathani, Bung Kan, and Nong Khai. With foreign labor drying up, factory owners are strongly considering relocating to countries where local labor is willing and abundant.

Thai authorities have been looking for a way to reopen borders for foreign visitors as tourism and local trade, necessary for the survival of border communities are in dire economic straits. With new cases increasing rapidly from illegal returnees, there is a lot at stake over how well Thai authorities are able to contain this latest Covid outbreak from the local population. Not just for Thailand, but the future reopening of the region.

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