JULY 12 — ”Myanmar protest.” “Myanmar military coup.” “Is it safe in Myanmar?”
These are just some of the options that pop up when one searches online Asean’s most troubled member state and they are reflective of the questions many have surrounding the South-east Asian nation and its unfolding political and civil society developments.
Activists and human rights defenders have increasingly shown solidarity with the pro-democracy protesters via the Milk Tea Alliance, pushing back against the junta that took over in February.
Meanwhile, Asean has been slow to effect change. Despite strong statements from leaders from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore as well as a five-point Asean agreement exhorting Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s regime to cease the violence and begin peace talks, there has been no tangible progress.
Instead, human rights violations have continued with hundreds dead, thousands displaced and the Myanmar citizenry continuing to protest against the coup which undid the National League for Democracy’s electoral victory.
This, coupled with a struggling economy and an increase in Covid-19 cases should serve as impetus for Asean to take a firmer stand and ensure peace in the region — but unfortunately, this has not yet happened.
In the consensus agreed upon in April, Asean was to appoint a special envoy to facilitate mediation of the dialogue process. Currently, there are three candidates: former Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda, former Thai diplomat and deputy foreign minister Virasakdi Futrakul, and Malaysia’s own Razali Ismail who previously served as a United Nations special envoy to Myanmar.
It is no secret that Indonesia is keen for its representative to serve in this role, as is Thailand. However, questions should be posed regarding the Thai candidate: considering that the junta and the Thai military are carbon copies of each other in many respects, would Virasakdi be able to apply the requisite pressure on the junta?
To compound this, Brunei — the current Asean chair — has been less than forthcoming in its briefings to other members in the bloc, say regional diplomatic sources.
During the Special Asean-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting to mark the 30th anniversary of the dialogue relations in Chongqing last month, Brunei did not volunteer information on its controversial visit to Myanmar where second foreign minister Erywan Yusof and Asean secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi met with the junta leader until pressed.
However, it is worth noting that while Brunei is known for a slow-moving top-down system, Myanmar does not depend on Asean’s approval by any metric: by getting its weapons from Russia and China and trading mostly with China, Myanmar is a brick wall and the bloc holds few tools it can use.
As these questions are mulled, the situation on the ground remains dire. Protests continue to be met with lethal force, the number of internally displaced people continues to climb and just this week, the UN’s special rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews said the international community was “failing Myanmar.”
When will Asean engage with civil society and the National Unity Government? Will the bloc continue to pay undue heed to the principle of non-interference even at the cost of human life?
These questions can’t just be answered by diplomatic elites. They must also be discussed by academics, civil society members, policy analysts and humanitarian workers. Because of the urgency, ISIS Malaysia will devote one session at its Asia-Pacific Roundtable to Myanmar.
It is imperative that Asean, the international community and the UN come together to address the turmoil in Myanmar before the situation spirals further out of control. For many nations, democracy is a slow and painful process — for the junta to undo 10 years of hard work and sacrifice by the citizenry and paint it over in blood is nothing short of wicked.
This article also appeared in the Malay Mail on 12 July 2021