ON April 24, Asean accomplished what many thought was near impossible. Asean managed to get General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, to attend the Leaders’ Meeting in person for crisis talks on Myanmar.
This is an extraordinary achievement, as the regional bloc, well known for its non-interference principle, has for the first time convened a special meeting to discuss grievous issues concerning another member state.
The Leaders’ Meeting is the culmination of weeks of diplomatic efforts led by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, all of which had advocated for a stronger response since the military coup on Feb 1.
Three months on, Myanmar is deep in crisis. The military regime is still bent on suppressing all popular opposition, shooting to kill, and using brutal measures to stifle mass protests and the civil disobedience movement. With no signs that any sides are backing down, the impasse is pushing the country to the brink of collapse.
Despite the odds being against all ten member states speaking resolutely in unison, the Leaders’ Meeting reached a five-point consensus on the following: an immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue among all parties concerned, for a special envoy of the Asean Chair to facilitate mediation with the assistance of the secretary-general, for Asean to provide humanitarian assistance, and for the special envoy and delegation to visit Myanmar.
The five-point consensus is a breakthrough as it provides an entry point and framework for constructive dialogue and hopefully, peaceful resolution between all parties. However, conspicuously missing from the five points is the release of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, even though it was called for by several member states.
This is a better-than-expected outcome, as historically, it has been extremely difficult to engage with the military regimes of Myanmar. To realistically address the crisis, Asean has to speak to the de facto party in power, no matter how unpalatable it may be.
While several stakeholders are disappointed that Asean has engaged with the Tatmadaw instead of the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), this meeting is only the first step in opening the door to the mediation process. Although individual member states have had contact with the NUG, Asean as a whole must also seek to engage with the NUG, which has a legitimate claim to represent the Myanmar people.
There is a limit to what the international community can do to rein in the Tatmadaw. Statements of condemnation, diplomatic isolation and sanctions imposed by the West, without stronger UN Security Council (UNSC) measures, have not had the desired effect on the military. The UNSC has met on three occasions to discuss Myanmar but remain deadlocked due to the threat of a veto from Russia and China.
Unarmed protesters inside Myanmar facing live ammunition fire have been calling for the international community to do more, although it is unclear what else can be done, other than stronger sanctions and further isolation against the regime.
There have been calls for the UN to invoke the “responsibility to protect, ” or R2P, doctrine that seeks to prevent mass-atrocity crimes like in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s. It calls on the international community to protect people when their states manifestly fail to do so, including by military intervention in extreme cases to prevent large-scale loss of life.
However, military intervention is simply not an option, as no major power is likely to take up arms against the Tatmadaw. Moreover, it would never pass the UNSC as Russia and China have blocked all attempts to authorise its further use, since the controversial NATO airstrikes in Libya in 2011.
The military regime will not hand over power to the ousted civilian government as demanded by its opposition and the people of Myanmar. No nation or grouping of nations, including Asean, have the leverage that can compel the regime to do that. Coup leaders rarely step down after seizing power, especially after so much blood has been spilled.
There is a huge gap between what the people of Myanmar need and what the international community can do. For now, the international community has accepted that Asean is best placed to take the lead, and it is rightly doing so.
Asean is probably the most plausible option available to resolve the impasse in Myanmar. The Asean special envoy and the secretary-general now have the unenviable task of trying to facilitate an inclusive mediation process and bridging the gap between the Tatmadaw and all parties concerned, including the NUG and the ethnic armed groups.
It is crucial that all stakeholders continue to demand the release of Suu Kyi as well as other political prisoners. The National League for Democracy which she leads has the strongest claim to legitimate government after emphatically winning the elections twice, in 2015 and in November last year, against the military-backed political party. Without their involvement in the mediation process, it will struggle to find broad-based support from the Myanmar people.
The challenge now is how to hold the regime to the commitments it has made. It will be a long, hard road ahead as the Tatmadaw has seemingly already backtracked from the five-point consensus. On April 27, the regime issued a press release stating that its administration ‘will give careful consideration to constructive suggestions made by Asean Leaders when the situation returns to stability in the country.’
Despite the early mixed messages, Asean must move forward as it has committed to the five-point consensus. There is no turning back.
There is no magic wand to magically transform these five points or any demands from words to deeds. The hard work begins now as obviously nothing will be achieved if these five points are not translated into reality, for the benefit of the Myanmar people.
We will know in the coming weeks and months how seriously General Min Aung Hlaing values Asean and the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter, as preparations are made for the dialogue process and the special envoy’s visit to Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.
In the meanwhile, there must be an immediate cessation of violence, as dialogue cannot start if civilians are still being shot and killed, and the population terrorised.
The international community must work together with Asean in addressing the unfolding catastrophe in Myanmar. As more protestors opt to join the ethnic armed groups in fighting the Tatmadaw, an all-out civil war and humanitarian disaster loom on the horizon. The repercussions will be far reaching, extending beyond Myanmar’s borders, threatening regional peace, stability and security.
The stakes are high for Asean should the mediation process fail. Asean deserves support and must seize the momentum from the historic meeting by promptly appointing its special envoy. Importantly, the special envoy must be someone who is acceptable to all parties, and must be provided with a full mandate and support, including a properly staffed and funded office, so that constructive dialogue can begin in earnest.
Eric Paulsen is the representative of Malaysia to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).