Asean is failing its ‘ultimate test’ in Myanmar
Leaders attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit on the Myanmar crisis in Jakarta in late April. The regional bloc must act more decisively to rein in the junta. (Photo: AFP)
It was just a few weeks ago, on 24 April, that Southeast Asian leaders emerged from a special summit on Myanmar hailing a “breakthrough”. The military junta had signed up to a “consensus” plan, vowing to end violence against protesters and allowing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to facilitate dialogue. Cautious hopes were raised for an end to the crisis triggered by the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar military) coup.
Since then, security forces have instead continued launching crackdowns, resulting in the deaths of many people, arrested hundreds and launched scores of airstrikes against civilians in the borderlands. Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief, has said he plans to implement the Asean plan when “stability returns”. In other words: thank you for the meeting, now leave us alone.
A mooted Asean Special Envoy is nowhere to be seen, nor is the purported dialogue involving the opposition. If Myanmar is the ultimate test for Asean’s ability to solve crises, it is one it is currently failing.
There is, however, still time to do something. The regional bloc can prevent more bloodshed in Myanmar and bring an end to the crisis — but it must act decisively and urgently.
There is no question that the Tatmadaw must be stopped at all costs. Since seizing power on 1 Feb security forces have killed close to 800 people and driven the country to the brink of economic collapse and a humanitarian disaster. But military abuses stretch back decades — I myself was recently part of the UN fact-finding mission that documented atrocities against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.
As brutal as the military is, this is not a crisis that has happened in isolation. Respect for human rights norms have eroded in Southeast Asia for decades. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has jailed or exiled the opposition and rules like a tin-pot dictator. In the Philippines, the government of Rodrigo Duterte has killed thousands in a vicious “war on drugs” while muzzling the media and critics. In Thailand, the quasi-military government has arrested hundreds — including more than a dozen children — who have dared to join street protests calling for democracy.
All the while, Asean has stood idly by. Regional leaders have hidden behind the “non-interference” principle and avoided voicing any criticism. It is in this climate of impunity that the Tatmadaw felt emboldened to seize power so brazenly: They knew there would be no consequences.
It is true that, to some extent, the Asean Special Summit on 24 April was a positive step forward. It was the first time the bloc had held an emergency session on the situation in a member state, and some countries — notably Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore — publicly and strongly condemned the Tatmadaw. Asean officials have privately told me they feel cautiously optimistic since the summit, and what pushing the boundaries of the “non-interference principle” will mean for the region’s future.
But we need action now, not in the long term. The junta’s contemptuous response has also exposed the limits of the consensus-based decision making the bloc prides itself on. While Asean was giving Min Aung Hlaing the red-carpet treatment in Jakarta, people were still dying on the streets defending democracy.
The real test for Asean is what happens next. It is clear this is a crisis that must have a regional solution, not least since the UN Security Council, European Union and other key international actors have all called on Asean to lead. With the Tatmadaw thumbing their noses at them, Southeast Asian leaders must put their foot down.
A very first step must be to appoint an Asean Special Envoy to Myanmar with strong human rights credentials, who should immediately visit the country. The envoy should open a dialogue with the National Unity Government as the legitimate government in Myanmar. This would show Asean’s seriousness and send a strong signal to the Tatmadaw that more bloodshed and repression is unacceptable.
Asean must also support what we, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, call the “three cuts” strategy to deal with the junta. This includes imposing sanctions on the individual architects of the coup and businesses that sustain the military financially. There must also be a global arms embargo on Myanmar. Finally, Asean should publicly support the efforts to hold the Tatmadaw accountable for its crimes, including through the International Criminal Court.
While things look bleak now, we must remember that there is nothing inevitable about military rule in Myanmar. In my own country of Indonesia, I saw how we went from the 30-year repressive regime of former President Suharto to being one of the region’s most progressive democracies in the space of a few decades.
The people of Myanmar are bravely still taking to the streets to push for change. The sacrifices of those who have paid the ultimate price for democracy and human rights must not be in vain. They need all of our support — Asean has no time to lose.