Asean still toothless a year after Myanmar coup
The first anniversary of Myanmar’s military coup is approaching. Since Feb 1 last year, the country’s socio-political landscape has changed dramatically. Brutal fighting has reached many parts of the country and the economy lies in tatters, while the UN warns that half the population may soon slip below the poverty line.
A broad-based resistance movement has been formed, with the National Unity Government (NUG) and the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) as important players, while many of the country’s Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO’s) and newly formed people’s militias play substantial roles in various parts of the country.
The illegitimate military regime, the State Administration Council (SAC), is detested by a vast majority of the population. The SAC’s military might is considerable but it lacks effective control of the country, including of important civilian public administration sectors such as health, education and transport. The peace processes with ethnic armed groups that dominated the past decade are now moribund.
Only a handful of governments have openly recognised the SAC. Others have tried to encourage the military junta to open a dialogue with opposition forces. While many in the international community have opened backchannels with the NUG, the SAC itself has rejected all pleas to engage it.
Initially, it looked like Asean might be able to play a constructive role in the resolution of Myanmar’s crisis. In April last year, its members reached agreement on a five-point consensus plan that included immediate cessation of violence, dialogue among all parties concerned, the appointment of a special Asean envoy and humanitarian assistance.
But nine months on, Asean has made no progress with the plan’s implementation.
Various factors contributed to its failure.
First, the military regime has made it clear that it is not interested in dialogue unless it can control the process. Since April it has violated the letter and the spirit of the five-point consensus.
Unspeakable violence, including the committing of war crimes and crimes against humanity, have increased substantially.
Second, a divided Asean allowed itself to get bogged down in debates about its internal rules and procedures, such as the appointment of a special envoy, while the SAC played for time, refusing to meet conditions set for the envoy’s first visit to Myanmar. In early January, a visit to the capital Nay Pyi Taw by Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen, current Asean chairman, showed how serious the divide between the member states has become.
Cambodia’s initiative to engage the SAC deviated from an earlier Asean understanding to block Myanmar’s political-level representation in Asean meetings. When Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia called Cambodia out on this, fissures in the organisation spilled out into the open.
Third, others in the international community have largely been hiding behind Asean, pledging their support for the organisation’s efforts even though it was clear early on that its internal divisions stood in the way of progress.
Fourth, international interest in Myanmar started to wane as other major crises, like those in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Ukraine took front stage.
Lastly, the absence of a robust international response to the crisis led to a gradual decline of trust in the international community. This intensified in September, when many international actors voiced concern about the NUG’s declaration of a “defensive war” against the military regime. They saw this as an unwanted escalation of violence.
The NUG, however, felt that the increasing violence and the lack of dialogue left it no other choice. Peaceful ways to resolve the growing conflict had failed and avoidance of a fight-back might have meant surrender to the military regime.
The build-up of People’s Defence Forces progressed rapidly and by the end of the rainy season they were making their presence felt in many parts of the country.
While this sparked international concern, frequent calls on “all sides” and “all parties” to come to the table and to accept a ceasefire frustrated the resistance. They felt that the international community should understand that this would play into the illegitimate regime’s hands.
Writing about the Myanmar crisis in The Diplomat in December, Sebastian Strangio pointed to “the limitations of the liberal model of peace-building, one in which all conflicts can always in principle be resolved through dialogue […]. Western observers may not support the opposition’s decision to resort to armed struggle, but they should understand it.”
To be clear, in one important respect the military regime and the resistance forces have equal responsibilities. Both must be accountable for any war crimes and crimes against humanity they commit. But the gulf in legitimacy and just cause between the two sides is also clearly manifest.
As the months progressed it has also become clear that Asean wasn’t the only institution with failing leadership. The same can be said of the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has largely been missing in action. His initial expressions of concern were followed by expressions of “serious concern” and “deep concern”, but little action.
He has been unable or unwilling to make sure that the UN has a common approach, a joint strategy or framework that in these trying times serves as an umbrella for the work of its individual components. Such a joint framework could also amplify the UN’s moral voice. At present it is sadly lacking.
Obviously, the UN Security Council has a lot to answer for. Its chronic paralysis over Myanmar, even as voices calling for a Security Council vote on an arms embargo and a referral to the International Criminal Court became stronger, did not encourage the Secretary-General to act.
But the Security Council does not bar him from action. He can use other handles. The most relevant ones are the decisions of the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. These show that a significant majority of member states want to see a stronger UN role. Developing a joint UN framework for action under the current situation would play into that demand.
It would also bolster the work of Noeleen Heyzer, the newly appointed Special UN envoy for Myanmar. It is important to make clear how her political mandate connects with the UN’s work on humanitarian assistance, human rights and development.
As far as Asean is concerned, it remains to be seen whether its internal differences can be resolved. The delay of a foreign ministers retreat originally scheduled for January might indicate that Cambodia is willing to rethink its proactive approach to the SAC. While Cambodia’s efforts to break the impasse should not be entirely dismissed, time is of the essence.
Failure of a meaningful start with the implementation of Asean’s five-point consensus will not only push Myanmar deeper into isolation, but it will also rupture Asean cohesion.
The current situation demands the identification of additional actors from the international community. Myanmar lies at the outer edge of the Asean “neighbourhood”. Of its five neighbours, only two are Asean members — Thailand and Laos. They carry the burden of proximity to Myanmar, but also the concomitant responsibility to act.
They share such a burden and responsibility along with China, Bangladesh and India.
These and other countries that have shown preparedness to engage, like Japan, should now step up to consider how they can help bring about an inclusive process that engages all parties in Myanmar. There are no quick solutions. It will take time, dedication and perseverance to bring about solutions that do justice to the aspirations of Myanmar’s people who have overwhelmingly voiced their demands for genuine transformation.