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To Remain Relevant, ASEAN Must Not Fall for Myanmar Junta’s Ploy

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (center) shakes hands with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh (second left) as Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha (left), Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (second right) and Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah (right) stand onstage during the opening ceremony of the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in Phnom Penh on Nov. 11, 2022. / AFP

When leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met at the regional summit last week, there appeared to be progress regarding how they would handle the Myanmar crisis. The bloc released an assessment recognizing the need for an “implementation plan” to support the Five-Point Consensus, along with “concrete, practical and measurable indicators with specific timeline”. A few days after ASEAN’s assessment, the Myanmar military junta granted amnesty to 6,000 prisoners including some prominent political figures and high-profile foreigners such as Australian economist Sean Turnell and former British Ambassador Vicky Bowman.

While it may be taken as a diplomatic success for ASEAN and the international community, ASEAN needs to use caution, as the Myanmar junta has used this go-to strategy of delaying and defusing ASEAN and international efforts to resolve political crises since back in the 1990s. The recent release of some political prisoners will do little to resolve the ongoing crisis, as thousands of political prisoners remain detained, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes, and innocent civilians remain at risk of being killed by air strikes. On the other hand, this kind of defusing of international pressure benefits the junta by allowing it to not only buy time but also remain focused on crushing the resistance and maintaining its tight grip on power, while the suffering of millions of Myanmar people continues. Myanmar people have learned from the past that this is just the junta’s attempt to defuse pressure. Thus, the release of some political dissidents will have little impact on people’s strong resistance against military rule and more importantly on the suffering of the Myanmar people.

Upholding its non-interference policy, ASEAN faces limitations in dealing with the Myanmar crisis. Thus, many criticisms of ASEAN from the international community may be undue. However, the exasperation of the Myanmar people towards the regional bloc is largely different. Myanmar people have done everything they could within their means to show their rejection of military rule, from voting for civilian politicians in the 1990, 2012, 2015 and 2020 general elections, to nationwide peaceful protests against military rule in 1988, 2007 and 2021. When decades of peaceful means still did not produce the outcomes that they strongly desired, they finally resorted to the current armed struggle, joining forces with ethnic armed resistance organizations who have been fighting for self-determination and freedom from the military’s ultra-nationalistic rule for many decades. Myanmar people have very few expectations when it comes to international support, as we know, for the most part, that we must fight our battle on our own. However, what Myanmar people are really hoping and crying out loud for, is for our neighboring countries to not enable further or inadvertently embolden the Myanmar military to continue to commit their horrific crimes with impunity.

Myanmar people have every reason to fear history repeating – any de facto recognition of the current military rule by ASEAN is expected to result in more decades of military rule and suffering, which are the Myanmar people’s worst fears. Under ASEAN’s constructive engagement policy with the Myanmar military, which dates to the 1990s, the then-military regime was admitted to the bloc in 1997. The admission to ASEAN not only let the Myanmar generals get away with their horrific human rights violations with impunity, but also shielded them from pressure from the international community. ASEAN’s constructive engagement was also taken as an example to follow by Western democracies, since Myanmar was viewed as moving in the right direction when the political transition of the 2010s seemed initially to go smoothly.

The coup in 2021 has proved that when it comes to the military, neither ASEAN’s constructive engagement nor the Myanmar political elite’s appeasement and reconciliation policy of the 2010s will work. It only confirmed that the Myanmar military never had any intention to retreat from politics or to let go of its political power and economic privileges. The continued violent and horrific crackdown on the resistance by the military has only made people more determined to end military rule once and for all. However, the people’s strong resistance and rejection of military rule appear to be misjudged by outside observers and some ASEAN leaders. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan recently described the Myanmar conflict as “a fight for the heart of the Bamar majority, between the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] on one hand and the National League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.”

While ASEAN may see military rule as the norm in politically complex Myanmar, resistance leaders, Myanmar analysts, and ordinary Myanmar people immediately knew, as soon as the coup occurred, that the truly barbaric nature and intentions of the generals would soon be revealed. With the recent release of political prisoners, ASEAN may still hope that the Myanmar military can be convinced to bring stability and peace. However, over the past about 18 months since the agreement on the Five-Point Consensus laid out by ASEAN leaders, the Myanmar junta has had no qualms about continuing its extreme violence against its own citizens. Just a week before the 55th ASEAN ministerial summit, the Myanmar military executed four political activists. In the midst of ASEAN’s continuous calls for the utmost restraint and the end of all violence, the Myanmar military continues with its campaign of terror including recent air strikes on a school in Sagaing Region and on a concert in Kachin State.

Options for ASEAN

ASEAN’s current assessment shows that in order to remain relevant, the bloc will need to show unity and leadership in the Myanmar crisis. After giving the benefit of the doubt to the military council for the past 18 months, the bloc now has an opportunity to take on fresh outlooks and approaches to develop the implementation plan. The regional bloc is now at a critical juncture – with a lot at stake, amid the continued deepening of the suffering of the Myanmar people, it has a chance to be on the right side of history, and save its reputation and relevance. ASEAN has three very different options: 1) maintain its old approach of constructive engagement with the Myanmar military; 2) take a politically neutral approach with effective support on humanitarian assistance; and 3) take a new direction, and listen to the people of Myanmar for a change.

The first option, constructive engagement with the junta, has been a default option for the bloc. It has raised the question of the relevance of the bloc and had a negative impact on ASEAN’s unity and leadership. To the people of Myanmar, such engagement only emboldens the junta and inadvertently sharpens the weapons that kill innocent Myanmar citizens and deepen their suffering. And the worst nightmare would be the regional bloc’s de facto recognition of the junta after its sham elections in 2023.

The second option, politically neutral support on humanitarian assistance, as also mentioned in the recent assessment, if taken cautiously, might be able to deliver urgently needed humanitarian assistance. ASEAN may be able to take a politically neutral approach, without directly engaging with the junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) or the National Unity Government (NUG). However, this humanitarian assistance could only achieve so much, considering the pace and intensity of atrocities that the junta continues to commit. This in a way only prolongs the people’s suffering with occasional relief provided along the way.

The third option is to take a completely new direction, an unprecedented one for ASEAN, by listening to the people of Myanmar for a change. It also means listening to the people’s representatives—those whom the people of Myanmar have chosen to lead their desperate attempt to overthrow the military. This includes the leadership of the NUG, the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).

Myanmar has already experienced the harsh reality of military rule under generations of generals from the same institution for half a century. The military has a record of failing the country as a key driver of conflict and division, and mismanaging the economy resulting in poverty for the majority of the population. The junta’s atrocities since the coup have opened all the old wounds and caused fresh suffering.

None of the options will be easy for ASEAN. It will be even more difficult for the Myanmar people to comprehend if ASEAN continues falling for the junta’s ploy while our lives are at stake—the lives of Myanmar people who are also a part of the ASEAN community. And the sad reality is that there are only very limited options for Myanmar people: to live under military rule, be killed and impoverished, or remove the military from the political sphere once and for all. People have learned the hard way that there is a price to pay for peace, stability and prosperity. That’s all Myanmar people are trying to achieve today and all they are fighting for. That is the very reason why the recent military coup has only made the people more determined to break this vicious cycle of military coups and end the military’s attempts to deceive the people and the world as “transitioning to a disciplined democracy.”

It is therefore more important than ever that ASEAN not fall for the junta’s ploy whenever the generals try to defuse the pressure for a short term so that they can remain in power as long as they wish. With a more informed approach to handling the Myanmar crisis, ASEAN could still have a positive impact or even a monumental chance to be on the right side of history. That would not only save Myanmar but also reclaim the bloc’s unity and leadership role in the region.

Khin Oo is a public policy analyst and researcher on the political economy of Myanmar.