Asean leadership needed to prevent state failure and human catastrophe in Myanmar and the region

ASEAN leaders gathering in Jakarta for an emergency Summit on Myanmar this weekend face the bleak reality that Myanmar is at serious risk of becoming the regional grouping's first failed state.

Gains made over the past decade in Myanmar and its internal peace, security and stability as well as the region's are at great risk.

The use of lethal force by Myanmar’s security forces (Tatmadaw) against its civilian opponents has put the safety of the latter at enormous risk. More than 730 civilians, including more than 50 children, have been killed, and more than 3,300 detained since Feb 1,2021 when the military seized control following a general election that Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide. The military has since declared a year-long state of emergency.

Myanmar’s already weak public health system is collapsing. Failure to manage Covid-19 in Myanmar will create a new "virus pipeline", delaying recovery of the region as a whole.

PCR tests for Covid-19 have stopped since Feb 1, and a shipment of 3.5 million vaccines purchased through the COVAX facility has not been delivered.

Myanmar’s economy is imploding and millions are at risk of food insecurity and being plunged into deeper poverty. Tens of thousands of workers have joined the civil disobedience movement and gone on strike. The banking sector is paralysed, restrictions on cash withdrawals have led to payrolls not being processed, and employees are refusing to pay income tax.

Supply chains are breaking down and shipping lines are suspending operations, leaving abandoned cargo at the ports.

The World Bank forecast in late March that Myanmar's economy would contract by 10% in 2021. Fitch Solutions, the research arm of the global credit rating agency Fitch Group, has predicted that the contraction would reach 20%, exports would decline by more than 60%, and “all areas of GDP by expenditure are set to collapse.”

Internal displacement is rising dramatically and the region will see an increase in refugee flows from Myanmar. The UN estimates that at least 250,000 people have been displaced within Myanmar. Violent crackdowns in urban areas and renewed conflict in ethnic areas such as Karen and Kachin State are causing people to flee from their homes.

These numbers are in addition to some 330,000 persons who were already displaced before the military takeover of power, including in Karen State, Kachin State, Shan State and Rakhine State. A refugee crisis is inevitable and Myanmar’s neighbouring countries - Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh and other Asean nations - will undoubtedly bear the brunt of the outflow.

Armed conflict is set to increase in many parts of Myanmar as a result of the coup.

The crisis in Myanmar has sparked renewed clashes in many border regions, and has effectively derailed its peace process.

The context of increased instability will present new opportunities for various forms of transnational crime to thrive. State failure in Myanmar will contribute to a dramatic rise in transnational crime across the region, including arms smuggling, drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal gambling enclaves, illegal wildlife trade, illegal resource extraction and other illicit businesses.

Even before the coup, Myanmar had been a ripe breeding ground for illicit business and transnational crime. Shan State, for example, had become one of the largest global centres for crystal methamphetamine ("ice") production, with drugs amounting to tens of billions of dollars trafficked into countries across the Asia-Pacific region each year.

For the first time since its founding in 1967, Asean faces the prospect of one of its Member States imploding and becoming a failed state. The impacts of state failure will reverberate beyond Myanmar’s borders, posing a clear and real threat to regional peace and security.

It is in the immediate and long-term interest of Asean to prevent state failure in Myanmar. Stabilising the situation in Myanmar and addressing its negative spillover effects on the entire region urgently require strong and decisive regional leadership and diplomacy.

In addition to the threats posed to Asean’s decades-long regional stability, its credibility is also at stake, given that the coup and conduct of the Tatmadaw are in blatant violation of the Asean Charter and the Asean Human Rights Declaration. Indeed, Asean’s own instruments compel it to act.

In this regard, we urge Asean to consider the following:

1. Asean leaders should call for an immediate cessation of violence. The safety and protection of the civilian population from Myanmar must be a top priority at the Summit.

2. Asean must make it clear that state failure is a serious threat to regional stability and that the Tatmadaw must assume responsibility and work with the group to resolve the crisis and prevent it from deepening further. Asean must also make it clear that it is not conferring legitimacy to the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council but is engaging with them to find a solution to the crisis.

3. Asean should call for a humanitarian pause to be implemented throughout the country and for an Asean Emergency Response Assessment Team (ERAT) to be deployed to conduct a rapid needs assessment in affected areas and for humanitarian assistance to be provided through the United Nations, Red Cross and humanitarian NGOs. This must include the deployment of civilian monitors from Asean countries to ensure that aid is delivered impartially to those in need.

4. Asean leaders should offer mediation through an Asean Special Envoy, a high-level figure from an Asean Member State to bring the parties to the negotiating table and forge a roadmap to resolve the crisis.

5. Asean Member States should agree to offer refuge and protection to all those fleeing Myanmar, and any refugee problems should be coordinated by the Asean Secretariat as a shared burden among member states, and only as a temporary measure until the crisis is over.

6. Asean countries and other affected nations such as China and India should work together to prevent the rise of transnational criminal networks.

7. Asean should engage the United Nations and wider international community, including the region’s private sector, in a plan for stabilisation, humanitarian and development assistance, and economic recovery in Myanmar. The protection of civilians and restoration of essential services must be of utmost primacy in these plans.TAN SRI SYED HAMID ALBAR


The Malaysian Advisory Group on Myanmar

(The Malaysian Advisory Group on Myanmar, comprising a group of eminent and concerned individuals from Malaysia’s public and private sectors, was established in March 2021 as an independent and credible council to provide sound analysis to the government of Malaysia on issues relating to the situation in Myanmar and the impact on Malaysia and the wider Asean and Asian region.)

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