Asean and the Myanmar morass
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Asean and the Myanmar morass

An image of imprisoned civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is projected on a screen during a 2021 night-time demonstration by protesters against the military coup in Yangon. (Photo: AFP)
An image of imprisoned civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is projected on a screen during a 2021 night-time demonstration by protesters against the military coup in Yangon. (Photo: AFP)

Two years ago, on Feb 1, the day that Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy were set to sit in a new parliament, the Myanmar military shocked the world by staging a deeply unpopular coup.

People throughout Myanmar mounted massive, peaceful rallies against the State Administration Council (SAC) demanding restoration of democracy and their elected leaders. The military and other security forces cracked down with deadly force, sparking a human rights and humanitarian disaster that persist to the present.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) quickly stepped forward as an international intermediary focusing on "Asean centrality" as critical to resolve the crisis. At first things were looking up. At an Asean leaders' meeting in Indonesia in April 2021, the coup leader, Sr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, was cajoled into signing a Five Point Consensus (5PC), which included requirements for an "immediate cessation of violence", talks with "all parties", and impartial humanitarian assistance, among other things.

But as soon as he returned to Naypyidaw, the general announced that the junta would carry out the 5PC on its own timetable.

"Asean centrality" now means that the regional body's agenda is increasingly being held hostage to Myanmar's crisis. The problem is that the crisis in Myanmar has split Asean right down the middle, with its consensus-based decision-making model proving to be its Achilles heel. On one side are the "maritime" Aseans, led by current Asean chair Indonesia, and including Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Brunei. On the other side are the "Mekong" Aseans, led by ringleader Thailand, and backed by Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as Myanmar.

The depth of that divide was on full display on Dec 22, 2022, Bangkok hosted what it billed as an "informal" meeting with the Myanmar foreign minster and two other SAC ministers along with the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, and the deputy foreign minister of Vietnam.

While a Thai spokesman claimed the meeting was "intended to complement Asean's ongoing collective efforts to find a peaceful political resolution for the situation in Myanmar", the SAC foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin used the meeting to denounce what he called "terrorist activities" by the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar and called for Asean states to act against the it and its allies. Not surprisingly, no progress was made.

The maritime Aseans refused invitations to attend the Bangkok meeting, making it clear that the meeting undercut Asean's decision to exclude political representatives from Myanmar until the junta showed it was serious about carrying out the agreement.

Recriminations between the two teams are making it harder, with some Asean states pointing to the Thai quasi-military government's close ties with Sr Gen Min Aung Hlaing as a core problem. The meetings on Jan 19-22 in Myanmar's Rakhine State by the Thai chief of defence forces, Gen Chalermpol Srisawat, and Min Aung Hlaing cemented Thai policy orientation further towards the junta. Expect fireworks behind closed doors when the Myanmar situation is brought up at the Asean foreign ministers' retreat on Feb 3-4 in Jakarta.

As Asean diplomacy goes around in circles and splits in the bloc worsen, the situation in Myanmar has grown significantly worse. More than 1.2 million people are displaced in the country, an estimated 34,000 civilian structures have been torched by the military, the military and police have killed more than 2,800 people, and over 17,500 protesters and bystanders have been arrested.

As the economy imploded, more than 50% of the population live below the poverty line of 1,590 kyats, or 75 US cents, per day. The Myanmar military is daily committing atrocities that the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Human Rights Watch and others say amount to crimes against humanity.

Obviously, that the junta has failed to meet its commitments to adopt an "implementation plan" for the 5PC with "concrete, practical, and measurable indications with specific timeline." The only possible penalty for Myanmar's defiance is to possibly expand the prohibition on Myanmar political representation at a wider group of Asean meetings.

Time is not on Asean's side, especially considering that Indonesia's Asean chairmanship will be followed next by Laos, which is likely to do little or nothing about Myanmar.

Jakarta needs to move now to create a new "Friends of Myanmar" group of governments willing to ramp up pressure on the junta, its state-owned enterprises like the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), and military-owned conglomerates.

This "coalition of the willing" should be prepared to drive the global action on Myanmar in a way that Asean can't, building political will and momentum to take on Min Aung Hlaing and the SAC's rights abuses and political recalcitrance. The future of Myanmar democracy, and the rights and well-being of the people, depend on it.

Phil Robertson is the Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter at @Reaproy.

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