By Robin Ramcharan*
Lawlessness is increasing the likelihood of a protracted civil war, perhaps even revolution, in Myanmar following the military coup on 1 February 2021. The junta has shot itself in both feet by overthrowing the legitimate civilian government that won the election decisively in November 2020 and by killing peaceful protesters.
The junta has been backed into a corner as people across Myanmar protest, determined not to compromise. The Committee Representing the Union Parliament, comprised of members of parliament not allowed to take their seats, invoked the people’s right to self-defence. The conflict risks becoming even more violent with the Kachin Independence Army vowing to fight the junta.
Lawlessness began with the junta’s abuse of the rhetoric of ‘public emergency’ under the 2008 Constitution after the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) failed to make electoral gains the in November election. But calls from the public for constitutional reform may grow louder, threatening to end the military’s grip on the country.
The military’s abuse of the judicial system compounds the quagmire. The generals plan to remove Aung San Suu Kyi from the political arena through sham trials. This will add fuel to the fire given that she remains the iconic and popular champion of democracy in Myanmar.
Some neighbouring countries seem impervious to the human rights violations and have imposed restrictions on domestic protests. In Thailand, immigration authorities warned that foreigners engaging in protests risk the revocation of their visas. Singapore also warned against planned protests over Myanmar. And Malaysia has deported Myanmar nationals despite a court order to suspend their repatriation following appeals by human rights groups.
Some countries are also compounding the people’s suffering by flouting international refugee law. The principle of non-refoulement is not being respected at the Indian border of Mizoram or in Thailand’s northern regions.
ASEAN offered a weak response — a statement on 2 March 2021 ‘called on all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility’. ASEAN needs a new template for mediation as it struggles once again to respond with one voice, rendering it unable to decisively address regional conflicts.
Indonesia has coordinated ASEAN responses but is caught in a bind: it must now defend the civilian leader who failed to protect the Rohingya community. Aung San Suu Kyi was condemned for her silence on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims and staunchly defending the military at the International Court of Justice in December 2019.
For the moment, Jakarta’s coordination reveals a divide between the less and more democratic ASEAN countries. Thailand’s ruling military apparatchik, a model for the Myanmar junta, views the conflict as a domestic affair. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have little to say. Malaysia calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Singapore expressed ‘deep concern’ and its Prime Minister described the coup as ‘an enormous tragic step back’ for Myanmar. Indonesia urges Myanmar to open its doors to ASEAN assistance.
ASEAN’s failure to intervene begs the question: what of the international community’s responsibility to protect? Burmese activists deride the ‘60 years of international impunity for [the] Myanmar military’s mass murders’. China has blocked any resolution by the UN Security Council (UNSC). In the post-Cold War era, the UNSC has begun to address mass human rights violations as a matter falling under its mandate to preserve international peace and security. But it is reluctant to adopt more robust preventive diplomacy, early warning approaches and military intervention.
While military intervention is unlikely, the UNSC has so far been unable to agree on ways to uphold international law through other available mechanisms. These could include commissions of inquiry, the creation of a judicial mechanism to investigate crimes (as in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda), a council visiting mission as a tool of preventive diplomacy and the imposition of sanctions.
A UNSC presidential statement captures the limitations of the Council and the international community. It condemned the violence against peaceful protesters, though not the coup itself, called for the release of detainees and a return to the democratic transition, and reiterated its support for ASEAN’s ‘readiness to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner’. The statement also expressed support for the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar (UNSRM) reported to the Human Rights Council (HRC) on the situation, holding the regime accountable and highlighting the systematic nature of the murders, imprisonments, disappearances and other acts against the Myanmar people. The HRC ‘deplored’ the coup in a resolution on 12 February 2021.
As the situation risks descending into a protracted civil war, the international community must act decisively to prevent an all-out conflict that threatens to destabilise the region. A robust response from ASEAN is desperately needed. The Myanmar Ambassador to the United Nations asked the body to take any means necessary. The UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar continues to try dialogue in vain.
Pending decisive action, the UNSRM called for sanctions on the junta leaders, the cessation of military support, stopping aid through the junta, halting business relations with the junta and the launching of investigations by member states that have universal jurisdiction laws to pursue senior security officials.
Lawlessness does not bode well for a speedy resolution to the conflict in Myanmar. ‘Getting to the other side’ will be a long and difficult road.
*About the author: Robin Ramcharan is Executive Director of the Asia Centre, Bangkok.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum