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It’s Time To Move Beyond ASEAN On Myanmar – OpEd

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It’s time to move on–and fast.  On April 24, 2021, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Jakarta, Indonesia, with Myanmar coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing to hammer out a negotiating vehicle referred to as the Five-Point Consensus. It was hoped a bridge could be built between a military that grabbed power  and democratic opposition to halt the violence ravaging that country. Despite some cautious optimism for the plan, it stands now as a total failure—for ASEAN and its international supporters.  If there is a path to stopping the killing, halting violence, providing humanitarian relief, and recognizing the Myanmar peoples’ desire for a democratic future, a radical new approach is necessary.

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The Consensus for all intents and purposes was dead-on-arrival.  It took just two days after getting back from Jakarta for Hlaing’s junta to blow the agreement up.  In a press release, the junta characterized the Consensus not as an agreement but as “suggestions” made by ASEAN leaders that would be “positively considered” if they facilitate the junta’s own agenda and “served the interest of the country.” In its sprint away from the agreement, the release further explained, “Myanmar informed the meeting that it will give careful consideration to constructive suggestions made by ASEAN leaders when the situation returns to stability in the country.”  This diplomatic middle finger was meant to embarrass ASEAN and convey a truth: The regime had no intention of negotiating and had no fear of ASEAN.  

Another truth is that the easiest thing for the international community to do was “let ASEAN handle the problem.”   A joint statement issued last October by the U.S. State Department in conjunction with seven other countries and the E.U., meant to highlight support for the ASEAN Special Envoy on Myanmar, instead demonstrated how neutered ASEAN is on Myanmar. “We call on Myanmar to engage constructively with the ASEAN Special Envoy to also implement other aspects of the Five-Point Consensus swiftly and completely. In line with the Five-Point Consensus, we call on the military to immediately cease violence; engage in constructive, inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders; and to facilitate safe, unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance, including by ensuring the safety of humanitarian and health workers,” it said.   

The junta responded in kind by barring the envoy, Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, from meeting with any opposition activists and organizations—the meeting was cancelled.

ASEAN has shown some signs of displeasure towards the junta.  It barred Hlaing from a summit meeting last year.  It’s actions also included extending an invitation for a “non-political” official to attend a regional ministerial meeting in February; both measures were extraordinary for ASEAN but amount to a minor hand-slap.  

Asian Parliamentarians for Human Rights issued an open letter on April 25th expressing extreme disappointment at the Consensus stating, “ASEAN should now accept the fact that…Hlaing has no intention whatsoever of abiding by the Consensus unless he feels strong pressure to do so.” This is pressure ASEAN is incapable of applying.  

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At this point, Myanmar stands on the precipice of falling into “failed state” status. It’s economy is in a free fall. The World Bank documented an 18% contraction of the economy in the year ending September 2021. The economy is 30% smaller than it might have been in the absence of COVID-19 and the February 2021 coup—a staggering number.  

Many of those furious at the coup have undergone rudimentary military training with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).  They have formed into bands of Peoples Defense Forces to fight back against the junta. The Civil Disobedience Movement takes a non-violent approach to opposing the regime and refuses to recognize its legitimacy.

For its part, the military has stepped up its brutal, scorched-earth campaign unleashing its war machine against civilians with tactics identical to those Russia is using as it rips into Ukraine: Violence. Murder. Destruction.  

In  two  separate  instances last December, the military shot and burned alive dozens of villagers including children.  Air attacks against civilians are common. Beatings, rape, and the razing of entire towns and villages have been characterized this year as “war crimes” in a UN report. The country is engaged in a low-level civil war pitting most of the population against the military and its supporters.    

If things are to change it will take U.S. leadership and dedication.  President Biden will be hosting a meeting of ASEAN leaders in Washington from May 12-13th.  No members of the junta will be invited though Washington will ask a  “non-political” representatives from Myanmar to attend. This meeting represents an opportunity for the Biden administration to launch a new diplomatic approach towards Myanmar that supersedes the Consensus. 

For starters:

  • The administration should invite members of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) representing Myanmar’s freedom movement to attend the ASEAN meeting and arrange a forum for them to brief ASEAN members.  
  • Announce the initiation of a “contact group” of like-minded states willing to work in support of Myanmar’s democratic opposition.   The goal would be to craft a strategic campaign that would dramatically increase pressure on the junta through ostracizing its members, economic sanctions, cutting off money and arms to the regime, and highlighting the work of the NUG.  
  • Regionally, the administration should step-up contact with Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines to ensure ASEAN does not recognize the junta as a legitimate representative of the people of Myanmar.  
  • The administration should lead outreach and contacts with Myanmar’s many diverse ethnic groups and ethnic armed organizations committed to a democratic Myanmar.  
  • Encourage countries to push humanitarian assistance through ethnic-group governments and press for U.N. distribution of aid inside the country.

It’s time to face up to the fact that ASEAN, with its founding charter clearly laying out non-interference, coupled with members such as Cambodia and Thailand, themselves the product of coups, along with other non-democratic states, is not the organization to mediate or solve Myanmar’s deep problems.   

More than one year into the military coup the window is rapidly closing to create a framework for international engagement with a strong regional component.  It’s time for a new start.  No question, this will be a major diplomatic lift for the Biden administration, but we must move beyond the ASEAN “handle-it”.

With Europe engaged in a massive land war, covid, and coups last year in Mali, Guinea, Sudan, and Chad there is no shortage of urgent, bloody situations that need help.  We need to hope the U.S. has the diplomatic bandwidth and determination to take another look and plot a new  approach towards Myanmar.  

*Mike Mitchell was program director for Burma/Myanmar for the International Republican Institute.  He continues to consult on democracy and governance issues.

One thought on “It’s Time To Move Beyond ASEAN On Myanmar – OpEd

  • May 3, 2022 at 12:48 am
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    Can’t agree more with this author. ASEAN has been a toothless tiger, may be intentionally. The west, particularly the United States should take charge and be more involved in bringing democratic changes to Burma. For that to happen, United States should find creative ways in sanctioning the junta more effectively such as disrupting the money flow from oil and gas exports by MOGE. In addition, the government in waiting, National Unity Government, should be more closely engaged and supported by the United States.

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