Regional body must live up to principles, deal with deaths, displacement in member state

THE Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) next week will see more discussions on one of its most intractable conundrums – how the regional organisation manages its relationship with Myanmar’s military junta, which is murdering its own dissenting population.

Asean needs to recognise the situation for what it is. Only then can it realistically contemplate its options. Policymakers and readers should bear the implications of following indicators in mind.

First, the two Asean chairs, Brunei and Cambodia, and their respective special envoys have not achieved anything substantial thus far. Neither has any Asean member state for that matter, whether quiet or loud, cajoling or critical. The junta has rebuffed everything, including its earlier commitments to five-point consensus, agreed on with Asean leaders in Jakarta last year. They were meant to provide a path to peace and normalcy for Myanmar. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s solo efforts to broker some middle ground, without the buy in of Asean member states, has also failed. It only led to greater fractiousness within the regional organisation on Myanmar.

Second, recent executions of four democracy activists, including a former National League for Democracy lawmaker, signals the resolve of the junta both to its domestic and international audience. The executions have drawn much criticism. But with thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced by genocidal violence carried out by the Tatmadaw, it isn’t a surprise. It is unlikely that its leaders did not contemplate the external optics. Especially nearing a major Asean meeting. What is more likely is that they simply did not care. More than 120 others have been sentenced to death for anti-junta activities since February 2021, an odious sign of things to come.

Third, the Tatmadaw is an insular institution concerned with survival and power, both of which it believes are mutually inclusive. They also have decades of experience surviving sanctions and enforced isolation. Myanmar today is also not the Myanmar of the 1980s and 1990s. Key neighbours and international partners – including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia – continue to maintain diplomatic, trade and security relations, ensuring the junta isn’t completely cut off. Threats to continue to exclude it from Asean summits and foreign ministers’ meetings are mere annoyance. Mind you, the Tatmadaw still continues to participate at the highest levels in Asean’s Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM Plus.

Fourth, Myanmar is in a state of civil conflict. It isn’t just the staggering numbers directly attributed to the post-coup violence – at least 2,000 killed and between 700,000 and one million displaced. The increasing violent backlash to junta rule and brutality is something it did not expect. The Tatmadaw might be the largest purveyor of violence, but it is by no means the only one dispensing it. Civil and private sector officials perceived as collaborators have been targeted for assassination. Military families have been restricted to tightly guarded cantonments or relocated to the only truly secure city, Naypyidaw. The National Unity Government (NUG) has endorsed its People’s Defence Forces as a legitimate armed resistance group. They continue to get a steady stream of volunteers. Violence has spread to almost all parts of the country and simmering conflicts with several ethnic armed groups have kicked off again.

The tragedy is that there is little desire or impetus for both the junta and anti-coup forces to reconcile. As violence intensifies and economic catastrophe, food insecurity and a breakdown of public services spread, the displacement of people inside Myanmar and across its borders is inevitable. Many fleeing for safety will be at high risk of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

Will Asean continue with the status quo – pushing for adherence to the five-point consensus and excluding Myanmar’s political and military leadership from key forums. How long can this last, seeing that only a few of its member states have really stood firm on this?

Or can Asean wait it out till elections scheduled sometime for 2023, where a preferred outcome for the junta is all but assured. It would bolster the case of those calling for the restoration of Myanmar’s representation in Asean. But it would be unequivocally shambolic.

Or will we see a breakdown of any semblance of unity among Asean member states in dealing with Myanmar, with some choosing to engage more openly with the NUG while others work with the junta?

While Asean needs to deal with Myanmar as it is, it ought to bear in mind that there are different stakeholders there, all of whom have a legitimate say. The Tatmadaw, as distasteful as they are, is still one of them. But so are the people of Myanmar and those democratically elected to represent them.

Democratic values often struggle to thrive among Southeast Asia’s governing elites. But the regional organisation has committed to be “people-oriented, people-centred and rules-based”. And if Asean does not bother living up to its own pledges, then it has only itself to blame for the dwindling confidence in its relevance.

This article was also published in New Straits Times on 27 July 2022.

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