Will Myanmar's fate rely on Asean?
As the dust settles on the US-Asean Summit in Washington, a clear path forward is emerging for Asean on Myanmar. The 10-member regional bloc finally took steps towards resolving Myanmar's junta-made crisis when Malaysia's foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, held an informal meeting with his counterpart from Myanmar's National Unity Government (NUG), and proposed to Asean that it do the same. But with the situation inside Myanmar now a massive humanitarian emergency, its people cannot wait any longer for Asean to act. Asean must call for a massive global humanitarian response to the crisis if it has any hope of saving its credibility.
The timing is critical for Asean and the people of Myanmar. Their country has been under siege from the military junta for more than 15 months and is now a humanitarian catastrophe. The military has caused the total number of people in need of humanitarian assistance inside Myanmar to reach an estimated 14 million, almost three times the number of those who have fled the war in Ukraine.
The intensity of violence outstrips that of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen and has forced more than half a million people to flee their homes. Most are seeking refuge from the junta's attacks in the vast territories along Myanmar's borders held by Ethnic Revolutionary Organisations (EROs) and newly formed People's Defence Forces (PDFs) allied to the NUG.
The crisis threatens the stability of the entire region. Yet Asean's response has been farcical and plunged to new lows when, a week before the Washington summit, Cambodia, Asean's current chair, convened a meeting to announce a plan for the delivery of humanitarian aid to Myanmar. The plan was developed in sole consultation with the military junta, granting it complete control over the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Myanmar people. This outrageous agreement is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to advance his own military objectives at a time when he is increasingly desperate. It is no coincidence that the areas he has identified for the delivery of aid are the very areas outside of his control that for months his forces have been mercilessly bombing, burning and cutting off access to food and medical supplies in a failed attempt to break resistance to his attempted coup.
He demands that Myanmar's neighbours keep their borders shut to restrict the flow of aid to those fleeing from his attacks. Min Aung Hlaing wants to be able to weaponise aid for his own purposes. If Asean proceeds on the basis of its current plan alone, then it will be complicit and disregarding the fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.
The plan is also reflective of Cambodia's increasing desperation as Asean chair. During its tenure, the equally ill-advised efforts of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to engage the junta have been repeatedly flouted by Min Aung Hlaing. This was Cambodia's last-ditch attempt to have something to show before the Washington summit. Cambodia then suffered further humiliation when it emerged that its foreign minister had lied about the attendance at the meeting of the UN Special Envoy to Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer. She was disinvited at the behest of the junta.
It is abundantly clear now that Asean needs to chart a new course on Myanmar. Asean's first step should be to immediately begin talks with the NUG on how to deliver humanitarian aid to the people in the border areas under the control of the NUG and its allies.
With dwindling resources and the threat of constant attack from junta forces, Myanmar's democratic actors cannot be left to shoulder the humanitarian response on their own. Asean must declare a general state of humanitarian emergency in Myanmar and call on the UN Security Council to mandate a humanitarian intervention that includes the presence of aid and healthcare personnel on the ground. This is the only way to get life-saving humanitarian aid to the millions inside Myanmar in dire need, including those in the country's populous central lowlands, its remote northwest and the tens of thousands who languish inside junta jails.
Since the crisis began, civil society organisations, community and faith-based groups and other local actors with long-established humanitarian networks have been delivering lifesaving cross-border aid to those in desperate need. But they are severely under-resourced and heavily restricted in their activities by the neighbouring national authorities, including in Thailand.
It is unconscionable that Asean member states continue to prevent these groups from delivering aid by keeping their borders with Myanmar shut at the behest of the junta. International donors including Asean and UN agencies must secure the opening of vital cross-border supply lines and direct aid through existing community networks in coordination with the NUG.
Asean's next move in response to Myanmar's spiralling humanitarian crisis will have lasting ramifications. If it continues with current plans to put the junta in control of humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, Asean will be choosing to side with Min Aung Hlaing over the Myanmar people. But if Asean is genuine about alleviating the suffering of the Myanmar people, resolving the crisis and restoring its own credibility, it must engage with the NUG and call for urgent global action on Myanmar.
Marzuki Darusman is a founding member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar. He is also former chair of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.