Myanmar poses Asean quandary
In the year following the coup in Myanmar which unseated Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and then State Counsellor (a position equivalent to prime minister), the country’s military has continued to pursue a policy of violence against detractors, leaving the world aghast. It has also left Asean in a quandary over how to handle the situation in a manner befitting its aspirations for growth, future prosperity and influence on the world stage.
Throughout its 54-year existence as a regional bloc, there have been missteps on what has largely been a journey of ascent, but now, Asean finally appears to be on the brink of not only a seat at the top table of intergovernmental politics but also a transformative economic moment.
With the ink barely dry on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Thailand and the rest of the grouping will have a level economic playing field with the wealthiest nations in the Asia-Pacific region and are hoping that huge infrastructure investment, coupled with long-standing supply-chain advantages, can spur rocket-like growth.
The memory of the early breakout years of the four Asian Tigers — South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong — from the 1960s onwards has always been the backing track to Asean’s fierce drive to get RCEP over the line. Yet this newfound, and much-coveted status brings with it increased scrutiny and the need to deal with internal conflicts in the bloc with transparency and accountability.
Asean’s challenge is how to deal with the Tatmadaw — the official name of the armed forces of Myanmar — which, on Feb 1 last year after the second successive election defeat of its own Union Solidarity and Development Party, brazenly seized power from the democratically elected government.
Democratically elected legislators, including leader Suu Kyi, were charged and imprisoned. Whether in leadership Suu Kyi had lived up to her illustrious Nobel title or not, her deposition placed the onus on Asean to prove that it had teeth to restore order in accordance with international law.
Asean’s style of quiet diplomacy that sometimes draws criticism from Western democracies has gradually borne fruit. Next week, Asean will hold a meeting in Cambodia; the Myanmar issue as well as the anticipated invitation of an Asean envoy to Nay Pyi Taw will almost certainly be discussed.
Yet Asean must not forget that quiet diplomacy may also need a raised voice at times, too. In Myanmar, the conflict rages on despite the best efforts of Asean and the United Nations. Already more than 1,400 lives have been lost in the crackdown since the coup started.
Since the rainy season began towards the end of last year, the Tatmadaw has continued to carry out air raids along the border with Thailand to quell guerrilla-military cells operated by the People’s Defence Force (PDF). As the second year since the coup begins, the Tatmadaw has found, much to its chagrin, that the resistance is only growing stronger no matter how harsh and brutal its crackdown and reprisals against protesters becomes.
Meanwhile, the National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow Myanmar government in exile formed by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a group of elected lawmakers and members of parliament ousted in 2021, is receiving support and sympathy from the world community. Last month, the NUG was listed among the nominees for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.
It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Hun Sen, as this year’s Asean chairman, can lay the groundwork for fruitful peace talks and a resulting ceasefire. It goes without saying that there are questions about Hun Sen’s suitability for such an important mission given his own record on human rights at home.
Yet his authoritarian record might also be an enabling factor, as appeared to be the case after his visit to Nay Pyi Taw to meet current leader and military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing last month yielded a positive-sounding joint statement.
He hinted that the two men had enjoyed cordial relations. Nevertheless, despite this promising start, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
If, as was reported last week, Sr Gen Min Aung Hlaing has agreed to arrange for an Asean special envoy from Cambodia to meet members of the ousted ruling party on a future visit, “cowboy diplomacy” must quickly be dispensed with in favour of productive, but firm, talks.
It is essential that the military junta is not left under the illusion that there is a third way, and that only by adhering to the Five-Point Consensus drawn up by Asean leaders last April can Myanmar benefit from its membership of the grouping and, of course, the inwards investment everyone hopes will form a solid base for rebuilding the country after the economic ravages of a prolonged Covid-19 pandemic in the region.