September 18, 2021

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Urgent action is needed on Myanmar, but involving the junta in the meeting of Southeast Asian leaders is a risky bet

Urgent action is needed on Myanmar, but involving the junta in the meeting of Southeast Asian leaders is a risky bet


But an extended invitation to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing – the head of the junta that led the coup – has sparked outrage among Burmese activists and human rights groups who believe his presence, online or in person, would give legitimacy. to the government of the junta.

“ASEAN must be careful if it appears to legitimize the junta even if it is not its intentions,” said Ja Ian Chong, a Singapore political scientist. “If ASEAN takes the side of the junta, it would probably create more uneasiness and unhappiness among all other groups in Myanmar.”

Myanmar activist leader Thinzar Shunlei Yi said Min Aung Hlaing’s participation in the summit “would signal not only to people in Myanmar but also in other Southeast Asian countries that the establishment of ASEAN is immoral.” He urged ASEAN not to give the junta what it wants: “recognition and a place with you”.

Others have called for the national unity government, formed last week of ousted lawmakers and coup opponents and which considers itself the legitimate government of Myanmar, to be invited to the extraordinary summit.

“ASEAN cannot adequately discuss the situation in Myanmar without hearing and speaking with the National Unity Government. If ASEAN’s aim is indeed to strengthen democracy, as stated in its Charter, they must give them a seat at the table. “said Charles Santiago, chairman of the ASEAN human rights parliamentarians (APHR) and a member of the Malaysian parliament.

Inviting the junta but not the national unity government is extremely controversial. Many human rights defenders and activists believe that ASEAN should fully disengage with the Myanmar military and only work with representatives of the National Unity Government.

Dr. Sasa, the spokesperson for the National Unity Government, said in an open letter ASEAN was “fully prepared” to participate in the summit and warned that engagement with the Myanmar military should only happen if the junta stops the killing of civilians and other abuses, its airstrikes in the southeast of the country. country, will release the detainees and return power to the elected government.

On Thursday, the national unity government sent a letter to INTERPOL calling for the arrest of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing before his planned trip to the summit.

ASEAN is walking a tightrope

The time for concrete action on Myanmar has never been more urgent as the situation continues to deteriorate, while the country’s military leaders have signaled no intention to back down.
At least 739 people, including large numbers of children and young people, were killed by junta-backed security forces after the coup and at least 4,300 were detained, according to the Prisoner Assistance Association’s advocacy group politicians.
There are daily reports of soldiers and police shooting dead people in the streets, of beatings, alleged torture of detainees, enforced disappearances and terrifying night raids on homes.

Meanwhile, the shutdown of WiFi and mobile data severely limited the flow of information, with the intention of preventing protesters from communicating and organizing.

The military said they responded to the protests in a “limited manner” and said the deaths “were not the result of gunfire by the security forces”, blaming “fake news” for inflating the death toll.

Anti-coup protesters hold slogans calling attention to an ASEAN regional meeting during a rally on April 20, 2021 in Yangon, Myanmar.
Myanmar risks becoming a failed state if the violence continues, the result of which could be a refugee exit, an increase in cross-border crime, human and drug trafficking and even piracy off its shores, say. analysts, which would be catastrophic for Myanmar and the region as it continues to struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic.

ASEAN is therefore walking a tightrope. Engaging with the military could “create a wedge” between the people of Myanmar and the bloc, Chong said. But ending the bloodshed is a priority for any meaningful path forward, and analysts say it should involve the military, known as Tatmadaw.

“I think there is no way around the crisis without having the Tatmadaw at the table, because they are part of the problem, and therefore they must be part of the solution,” said Elina Noor, director of political security affairs at Asia Institute for company policy.

The commitment, he said, would ultimately be better than isolating the junta, as Myanmar has a long history as an isolated pariah state during decades of military rule.

“They have dealt with it before and will resist if necessary if they are isolated again,” Noor said.

There are further implications at play. ASEAN’s credibility could be damaged if it fails to bring about some form of stopping the violence, or if it is deemed ineffective in handling the looming humanitarian crisis. The bloc previously acted as a bridge between Southeast Asia and the rest of the international community, but its value as an international partner could be jeopardized if the crisis escalates across the region or is seen as too welcoming to the arrived.

“ASEAN’s ability to somehow manage the crisis in Myanmar is actually quite important,” Chong said. I can imagine how European leaders and especially American leaders (would) like to distance themselves, because they probably don’t want to be seen pampering violent dictators. “

Does ASEAN have any power?

ASEAN is a regional group of ten Southeast Asian member states, from Myanmar in the north to Indonesia in the south. Established on the basic idea that these countries are stronger together by promoting economic growth and regional stability among its members.

If ASEAN were a country, it would be the fifth largest economy in the world and has endeavored to stimulate trade between partner nations and allow free movement of skilled workers.

However, ASEAN has been plagued by the inability to act on the major issues it faces, such as how to deal with China’s claims and expansion in the South China Sea and its construction of dams along the south-flowing Mekong River. east asia.

On Myanmar, the group managed to issue only a weak statement calling on “all parts” of the country to “refrain from instigating further violence”.

Analysts say the bloc could use its combined economic leverage to persuade the junta to change course. Thailand, for example, shares a 2,416-kilometer (1,501-mile) land border with Myanmar and is a major foreign investor. Cross-border trade surpassed $ 9 billion in 2019. And Singapore is the largest foreign direct investor in Myanmar. However, both countries have been reluctant to exert such influence.

“It is important to realize that no party has enough power on its own, be it the United States, China, India or others to put pressure on the junta alone,” Noor said.

Diplomatically, the junta may be more willing to cooperate with ASEAN than other nations or regional blocs, due to its discreet political agenda.

“As this is handled within the ASEAN family, there is some confidence that we can resolve it within our region within our group and not involve outside parties,” said Evan Laksmana, political scientist and senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta.

An arduous task

So what would be the best result on Saturday?

Laksmana said Indonesia has proposed a humanitarian pause – a cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian aid and assistance to the country.

Going further, a priority for ASEAN states would include a commitment to facilitate an end to violence, provide aid to the country and initiate a Myanmar-led dialogue process, he said.

Some analysts have suggested appointing an ASEAN envoy to Myanmar or a task force to travel to the country, while others have called for Myanmar to be punished by suspending its ASEAN membership.

Meanwhile, human rights groups and activists have called on the bloc to impose an arms embargo, targeted economic sanctions on military leaders and junta-related businesses, release political detainees and restore the country’s democratically elected government. They want ASEAN to demand Min Aung Hlaing accountability at the top and show the bloc’s intention to stay with the elected government, not the junta.

But to convince the nine ASEAN states (minus Myanmar) to equalize minimal action, such as agreeing on a framework for dealing with the crisis, will be a tall order.

The Myanmar army underestimated the strength, willpower and courage of its people

The diverse bloc is known for a non-intervention policy, and its gears are grinding at an extremely icy pace – it took three months for members to even hold a meeting on Myanmar.

States themselves are not beacons of democracy and many have to deal with their own internal political problems. Thailand had its coup in 2014 – the leader of which is now Prime Minister – and recently faced mass protests in favor of democracy. Laos is a one-party communist state that severely restricts the civil liberties of its citizens and has been ranked 172 out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Vietnam, another ASEAN member state, has ranked 175th place.

The pandemic has made everything more challenging.

“I don’t think there is much political will in ASEAN to take on anything more ambitious at this point. In part it is also particularly unfortunate that all of this was happening in the midst of the pandemic. So many governments are quite distracted,” Chong said.

However, there are signs that some states are determined to propose a strong front.

Foreign Minister of Malaysia Hishammuddin Hussein he said on Twitter that in a phone call with the UN Secretary-General reiterated “Malaysia’s position that violence must stop; political detainees must be released; and an ASEAN representative must be able to meet with all parties involved”.

Ultimately, there is debate over how much the Burmese junta would listen to ASEAN as well, even though the presence of Min Aung Hlaing at the summit suggests that he is eager for regional recognition from his government. ASEAN is thus embarking on a high bet where it could risk its already shaky reputation by allowing a ruthless dictator to thwart attempts to resolve the crisis in Myanmar by giving it the attention and legitimacy it craves.