A medical staff wearing a facemask looks out from mobile medical operation performing health checks amid concerns over the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus on the outskirts of Yangon on May 16, 2020. Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main

CHIANG MAI – Thailand’s security forces on the Myanmar border are on high alert to prevent an influx of a new breed of migrants which if some reports are accurate may turn into a flood: health refugees fleeing a surge of Covid-19 infections.

Thai authorities are reportedly on the lookout for a large but unspecified number of Myanmar people trying to cross the border. Rather than looking for work, as in the recent past, the new wave of Myanmar migrants are seeking to escape a seemingly uncontrolled outbreak of Covid-19 infections in their country.

“They know Thailand has medical facilities where they could get help if they are infected or, if they are not, just seek shelter from what appears to be a wave of infections in Myanmar, a country with grossly inadequate health services for the general public,” said a source who has just returned from the border.

In Phuket and Ranong in the south, the Thai navy has increased patrols of the narrow waters that separate the country from Kawthaung on the Myanmar side.

A Myanmar woman wearing a traditional facial cosmetic has her temperature taken as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 novel coronavirus at a market in Yangon on March 21, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

In the past, thousands of mostly young people from Myanmar crossed legally and more often also illegally from Kawthaung to Ranong to look for work in the many resorts in Phuket and at Khao Lak and other popular tourist destinations along the coast of Thailand.

There are well-established smuggling networks in the region that facilitate the movements. Now, Thai authorities aim to block people who may be infected from entering and spreading the disease or causing fear among the local population that they may be infected.

Thailand has largely contained its Covid-19 outbreak, with no new locally transmitted infections recorded in several weeks. Phuket has been identified as the first place Thailand may open for controlled tourism, but the presence of migrants from Myanmar who have not been tested could undermine any move to get the island’s local economy back on track.

Phuket and nearby areas that depend heavily on tourism have been badly affected since the Covid-19 epidemic broke out earlier this year. There is virtually no other industry apart from fishing and the majority of businesses on Phuket cater to foreign tourists who are now barred from entering the kingdom.

In Kanchanaburi, west of Bangkok, a Covid-19 testing station has been set up for migrants who have managed to cross the long and porous land border with southeastern Myanmar. Local employers face their businesses being closed if newly-arrived workers test positive.

The Thai-Myanmar border crossing at Sangklaburi in Kanchanaburi province has been closed. Photo: Alan Parkhouse

Similar measures have been taken in the north of Thailand, where most of the workforce in areas such as construction are ethnic Shans from Myanmar. Many Shans habitually cross back and forth between the two countries to visit relatives or bring goods for sale to supplement their incomes.

It is still unknown how widespread the disease is inside Myanmar. As of September 11, official figures stood at 2,265 confirmed cases, 14 deaths and 625 who have been discharged after receiving treatment.

But according to the same official statistics, only 208,357 people across the country have been tested, so the actual figure is certainly much higher.

In the absence of complete and reliable data, fears spurred on by social media have spread among the general public, particularly as measures taken by the authorities seem hopelessly insufficient to deal with a crisis people now perceive as spreading out of control.

In order to contain the spread of the virus, all domestic flights in Myanmar will be suspended until October 1, but flying is hardly the mode of transportation most ordinary Myanmars use.

Passenger buses in Mandalay and Kayah states have suspended their services and, in the commercial capital Yangon, 29 of 44 townships have been placed under semi-lockdown, with all streets apart from major arteries closed to traffic.

When three staff, including an assistant nurse, tested positive in Yangon’s Lanmadaw township, the hospital where they worked and all surrounding buildings were locked down.

Police watch from a vehicle while people wear face masks on a street on August 23, 2020, during a lockdown amidst fears of the coronavirus in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State southern Myanmar. Photo: AFP

The situation is reported to be especially grave in western Rakhine state, where 671 cases were reported on September 10, up from 576 two days before. A lockdown has been in place across the entire state since August 26, halting the movement of more than three million people.

But suspicions are strong that the lockdown may also be politically motivated, as the state is ravaged by ethnic insurgencies the Myanmar military has found hard to contain by more conventional methods such as roadblocks and house searches.

Thailand’s health authorities are no doubt watching developments inside Myanmar with profound concern. But that means that border area economies are suffering – and it’s not only a question of empty hotels and resorts in Thailand’s south.

In Mae Sot, an industrial center which for years has been heavily dependent on migrant workers from Myanmar, factories are closed every other day or sometimes for a week, while the flow of trucks, vehicles and pedestrians across the border has almost ceased.

According to a local source, only cargo is allowed on the bridge that spans the Moei river, and each truck can carry only the driver and an assistant.

The bridge across the Moei River in busier times last year. Now only trucks carrying cargo are allowed to cross, not people. Photo: Alan Parkhouse

Mae Sot is also a center for car smuggling into Myanmar, a huge and very lucrative border business, but that too has ground to a complete halt. “There are thousands of cars parked here, and no one can bring them across the border,” the source said.

The only exception seems to be visitors to casinos on the Myanmar bank of the border river. Although any crossing over to the other side is strictly illegal, some gamblers appear to make it across the Moei River.

Those casinos – and especially the new boomtown of Shwe Kokko on the Myanmar side where there is massive investment from China in gambling venues, real estate and shopping centers – also get all their supplies ferried over from the Thai side.

But even in Shwe Kokko and nearby places, it is not business as usual. The number of gamblers is way down and the Chinese workers in Shwe Kokko and nearby places, who could be seen in droves even in Mae Sot, are locked down or have returned home to China.

When much of the border in and around Mae Sot was shut and supply routes were interrupted earlier this year, thousands of Myanmar workers returned home. Now, they – and many others – are trying to come back to Thailand for health reasons.

Armed Thai navy personnel, seen in this file photo, are now patrolling waterways to stop people from Myanmar fleeing Covid-19 infections in their country. Photo: AFP/Aidan Jones

In theory, there should be a mandatory 14-day quarantine for any returnees. But with near-panic spreading inside Myanmar and many desperate to leave at any cost, the new health refugees seem to be relying on old smuggling networks.

And that means heightened tension along the frontier with increased patrols and arrests along the notoriously porous 2,416-kilometer border. In one case, at the beginning of this month, Thai police apprehended 11 Myanmar nationals who had sneaked across into Thailand.

But that likely reflects the tip of the iceberg of what could soon be a new type of refugee crisis.