Myanmar crisis a wake-up call for Asean to stop abdicating its role in region

No end in sight: Anti-coup protesters gathering outside the Hledan Centre in Yangon. There are fears the military takeover is turning Myanmar into a failed state. — AP

ASEAN members, collectively or otherwise, should tighten the screws on Myanmar’s military by engaging with the National Unity Government (NUG) – the parallel government run by civilians in hiding – before geopolitical manoeuvres by superpowers further complicate solutions to the crisis, according to some experts.

The recommendation from a group of veteran diplomats and regional experts follows a week of hectic diplomatic activities outside the region, after Asean Chair Brunei failed to convince the junta to implement the five-point consensus approved by Asean leaders back in April to end the violence.

Since the Feb 1 coup, Myanmar has seen almost 900 people killed, including 70 children, and 6, 200 civilians detained as political prisoners.

On June 18, the UN General Assembly condemned the coup and called for an arms embargo against the country. That was followed by a meeting on June 22 between US senior officials and the UN Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, in Washington, in which they pressed Asean to hold the junta accountable to the five-point consensus.

Meanwhile, coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attended a security conference the next day, June 23, in Moscow at which Russia pledged to strengthen military ties with the Myanmar military.

But it was the vote at the UN which displayed a rare demonstration of widespread global opposition to the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s term for military.

“June 18 was important for many reasons. It made clear who is who," said Laetitia van den Assum, who was a member of the Kofi Annan Commission on Rakhine set up by Aung San Suu Kyi.

“At the UN General Assembly, of the 156 member states, 119, or 76%, voted in favour of the resolution; 36 abstained and one voted against. At the UN Security Council, all 15 voted – 12 in favour, while India, China, Russia abstained. Of the Asean members, six voted in favour, while Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos abstained," said Laetitia, who was a former ambassador of the Netherlands to Myanmar and Thailand.

Laetitia was speaking at a webinar, “Myanmar: Hope fades, fear mounts”, organised by the Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 media houses in 20 Asian countries including all 10 Asean states. Other participants were Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar, former Malaysian Foreign and Defence Minister; Dr Marty Natalegawa, former Indonesian Foreign Minister; Kobsak Chutikul, former Thai ambassador; and Moe Thuzar from ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute Singapore.

Dr Marty said nothing would make the State Administration Council (SAC), set up by the junta to run Myanmar, “more disturbed and serve as a greater wake-up-call moment than for Asean to publicly reach out to the NUG”.

The former Indonesian foreign minister, who is now a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Advisory Board on Mediation, called for a united Asean and collective support for the Chair to carry out its task because Myanmar is a member of the bloc in Southeast Asia, and any intervention by powers outside the region would be geopolitics beyond Asean’s control.

Syed Hamid said Asean must force itself to play an effective role as agreed at the leaders’ meeting in Jakarta. It must not wait for approval of the Tatmadaw. “When I looked at the NUG, I was excited. More inclusive, more open, more willing to discuss...”

The NUG, formed by elected politicians of the National League for Democracy Party and several ethnic minorities, has also embraced the Rohingya with admission of wrongful treatment of the minority in the past. While the NUG is not in control of the government, the Tatmadaw is also not in control of the state, and neither is yet internationally recognised as a legitimate body to represent Myanmar.

The NUG’s establishment of a “National Defense Force” has intensified sporadic fighting between the two, which have escalated throughout the country.

Thailand’s Kobsak described Asean as “fractured and disunited”, and said they “would not be able to deliver change or reverse the situation in Myanmar”. Given the humanitarian urgency, he suggested other channels, including appointment of a non-Asean national as envoy who would be able to rally other countries to work in an alliance to put pressure on the Tatmadaw.

The envoy could be the likes of former UN chief Ban-ki Moon or outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel, he suggested. “So, we don’t need to have to find consensus, ” he said, adding that such an envoy could get President Xi Jinping of China to make a phone call to General Ming Aung Hlaing and bring the crisis to an end.
“But how do we get Xi to pick up the phone?” he quipped.
Moe Thuzar, a Myanmar citizen and researcher at Iseas Singapore, said stability in Myanmar means different things to different countries. For the US, it is to uphold the principle of democracy and human rights and for Asia, the focus is on business and economic interests.

While the Tatmadaw is seen as succeeding in playing off Asean members, it also capitalises on the Asian sentiment by promising to be business friendly. But this is evidently now “hard to keep”, she said. The Myanmar people are more determined than ever before to take things into their own hands with a civil disobedience movement and disrupting daily functioning of the bureaucracy, banking and businesses.

The NUG also plays a different narrative to the Tatmadaw. Apart from adhering to democratic principles, its engagement with the Rohingya is a “good point” to illustrate the difference. Moe Thuzar said as the NUG continues to engage with different countries, including in Europe, “Hopefully, Asean parliaments may follow suit.”

Dr. Marty voiced support for the NUG’s inclusive approach towards civil societies and ethnic groups, and its ambitious attempt at state building and peace building while being in hiding and on the run. “It is a good ground for the NUG to build on. Asean can go about engaging them and hearing their opinions, and helping them make it work.”

But he was dismayed by what he saw as a la carte regionalism. “At the first sign of difficulties, at the first sign of challenge, countries are basically jumping ship, not displaying the necessary resilience, not showing the necessary conviction that Asean can deliver. This is extremely damaging, far greater long-lasting damage to Asean than the issue at hand because it raises questions about the whole Asean project, the reliability and commitment.”

Several of the participating diplomats were careful in their assessment of the role of Thailand, which ought to be well placed to deal with the Myanmar crisis in unity with other Asean members. But they also realised that the Myanmar junta themselves are encouraged to stage coups by examples in other countries, such as Thailand!

Kobsak said, “Thailand is a frontline state. We are right next door. But Thailand is hamstrung, and remains undecided on what is the best path forward because we have the economic factor, we have the personal relationship, we have the military set up, institutions, and also the burden of the current government being born out of a coup, although legitimised by an election but still originating from a coup 6-7 years ago, similar to Myanmar.”

And Thailand takes refuge in hiding behind Asean.

Marty believes firmly that if Asean remains divided, the only beneficiary will be the Tatmadaw, and they should not be allowed to reap the benefit from Asean's inaction.

“If we don’t believe in ourselves, why should the rest of the international community believe in us? There is not one frontline state in Asean, we are all frontline. Asean is a community in 2021. Geography matters, of course, but what’s happening in Myanmar impacts all of us because we are one big family and on the frontline. There is no line, there is one big family. That’s why we need to be engaged.

“I would appeal to all Asean member states to think of collective regional interest, to recognise that this is a common regional responsibility, one cannot have it both ways, saying yes to Asean and at the same time flashing and demonstrating their national position. Everyone must rally around the Chair, currently Brunei, ” he said.

Tan Sri Syed Hamid called for a change in the Asean mindset, from a comfortable, cautious and highly tolerant organisation. “Asean has not changed. It wants to stay in its comfort zone and doesn’t want to upset each other. It's one family with collective interest, but we don’t act as a community. We are not a cohesive organisation, there is no united position, and the Myanmar junta takes advantage of us.”

Dr Marty added that the longer Asean delays, global geopolitical manoeuvring involving the US, Russia, China, France and others would be replicated in the region. “We will become a part and parcel of geopolitics that we can’t control. The lesson to be learned is that regional countries must assert their relevance and assert their solutions to the wider world.” — Asia News Network

Pana Janviroj is the executive editor of the Asia News Network.

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