Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the leaders of Asean will hold a special leaders' meeting this Saturday at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta to discuss how to deal with the deteriorating situation in Myanmar and its repercussions on the region and beyond. Along with the other leaders, General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of the State Administration Council of Myanmar (SAC) is also expected to attend the gathering. The summit is unprecedented in the 54-year history of the organisation in that it is the first time that Asean will be meeting at the highest level to address principally a situation of concern in a fellow member state.
Indeed, there is grave concern on the part of Asean and the international community over the course of events unfolding in Myanmar. There appears to be no end in sight to the growing violence and hostilities. Each passing day brings more deaths and casualties as the crackdown by security forces becomes even harsher. The pro-democracy and civil disobedience movements have nevertheless remained undeterred and have widened their base of support by bringing on board the various armed ethnic groups.
While Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the NLD remain under detention, those leading the call for the return of democracy and opposition to military rule have sought to garner international support and legitimacy for their struggle, establishing a parallel civilian-led national unity government as the alternative to the military-led SAC. Meanwhile, the once booming economy of Myanmar, already hard hit by the rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, is in a free fall causing greater hardships for the people. The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is called, appears bent on intensifying its violent campaign of suppression in defiance of world opinion. The fear is that the worst is yet to come and that Myanmar is heading towards civil strife and becoming a failed state.
In the face of such dire circumstances, the Asean special summit in Jakarta, comes at a very crucial juncture. After much toing and froing, Asean has finally come to realise that the crisis in Myanmar has become Asean's conundrum, challenging many of the old assumptions that the regional organisation had operated on, namely the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of a member state, which has been one of the cardinal principles at the heart of the so-called "Asean way".
It is obvious that the tragedy and the atrocities that we are witnessing in Myanmar have had far-reaching ramifications for peace and stability of the region as a whole and for Asean's own credibility and standing in the eyes of the international community.
In Asean, the principle of non-interference must be applied against the obligations under the Asean Charter which includes, among others, the principles of democracy, human rights, good governance and rule of law, as many have already noted. While it must be admitted that the Asean Charter also provides a leeway in how member states choose to pursue such principles, it is worth recalling that the first sentence in the preamble of the Charter begins with the phrase "We the peoples...", meaning that every Asean government is duty bound to represent its people and has the primary responsibility to protect and promote the interests and well-being of its people. There is no justification whatsoever for any government to allow its soldiers to turn their guns on their own citizens in flagrant violations of human rights.
In the case of Myanmar, if Asean fails to act, its community-building efforts, the on-going economic integration, the cooperative relations with many key dialogue partners and, significantly, the much-touted Asean centrality will certainly suffer irreparable setbacks. What is more, if Asean proves itself incapable of managing the affairs of its own region, the case could be made for those outside the region to intervene in advancing their agenda and interests. Asean then would be confronted with the very real possibility of Myanmar becoming an arena for major power contestations.
Unfortunately, Asean remains divided on how to act. On the one hand, some member states such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and, recently, the Philippines have been openly critical of the Myanmar military regime, calling for a more pro-active approach by Asean. On the other hand, the other member states, Thailand included, seem to be ambiguous in their position, preferring a more passive wait-and-see attitude. Up to now, there have been diplomatic initiatives led by Indonesia but very little in the way of joint efforts by Asean apart from the issuance of statements of concern by the ASEAN Chair, which has been rather measured and couched in diplomatic parlance.
For sure, in Jakarta, General Min Aung Hlaing will be coming with the main objective of seeking the support and understanding of Asean. It is doubtful that he would be prepared to offer any real and substantive concessions. What is most essential is that Asean avoids what could be construed as accepting the situation in Myanmar as a fait accompli. The issue of recognition must be threaded carefully as it could become problematic particularly in the light of the setting up of the parallel national unity government by the pro-democracy movements.
If the gathering in Jakarta is to make any headway, Asean leaders must be well-prepared to be on the same page and speak with one voice in impressing upon General Min Aung Hlaing that the tragic events in Myanmar are of grave concern to all of the Asean member states and that the entire region stands to be adversely affected if the situation is not urgently redressed.
The Myanmar military must respond positively the concerns of Asean and the international community over the developments in the country. If the Tatmadaw continues to defy world opinion, it could only lead Myanmar down the path of further isolation to its own detriment and that of the region as a whole. Importantly, the Asean leaders must be forthright in addressing the key issues, namely an urgent halt to the violence, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all the political detainees as well as reinforcing the call for the SAC to enter into constructive dialogue with all the Myanmar parties concerned.
Realistically, one should not expect any immediate positive response from the military junta. Many have expressed doubts whether the Tatmadaw is really prepared to engage positively with Asean. Be that as it may, Asean must continue to pressure, probe and prod in pursuit of its efforts to help resolve the situation in Myanmar and to help the people of Myanmar. The special Asean summit must not be an end in itself, but the beginning of a process of diplomatic engagement on the part of Asean.
To this end, Asean should lay out a coherent, coordinated and creative diplomatic strategy for the way forward. Many ideas abound such as the appointment of a special envoy or a group of the Friends of the Chair to serve as the focal point for coordination among Asean and dialogue partners. The dispatch of a humanitarian mission by the Asean Secretary-General, as was the case with the cyclone Nargis disaster and during the Rohingya crisis, could potentially provide the interface with the military regime in Nay Pyi Taw to open up the space for humanitarian and subsequently broader dialogue with all the relevant stakeholders.
Asean must also be creative in employing a multitrack approach whereby existing official channels of communication can be augmented and complemented by informal or behind-the-scene diplomacy involving private individuals or organisations having both the links and the impartiality to serve as the conduit to build up trust and confidence among the respective parties in Myanmar. The crisis in Myanmar is both a challenge and an opportunity to rethink and reinvigorate the Asean way for, ultimately, it is about "We the peoples…"as enshrined in the Asean Charter. And it is in that spirit that we must not fail the people of Myanmar.
Sihasak Phuangketkeow is former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Secretary-General of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council.