Southeast Asian leaders stay timid on Myanmar, pander to junta

Photo: သူထွန်း, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Southeast Asian leaders have reached a muted agreement on Myanmar’s crisis that fails to condemn the military government or make any real demands of coup leader Min Aung Hlaing. The primary impact of the summit in Jakarta is that it sets a worrying precedent for international engagement with the country’s junta.

Editorial

Leaders of ASEAN states met with Myanmar coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing over the last weekend in April to address the worsening crisis in the country. The leaders discussed the situation “as an ASEAN family” and expressed “deep concern” for the “reports of fatalities” in Myanmar, according to a statement by ASEAN chair Brunei following the summit. 

Since seizing power on February 1, Myanmar’s military and security forces have killed over 740 people in a violent crackdown on protests, targeting anyone perceived to be pro-democracy or anti-junta.

At the summit in Jakarta, the leaders reached an agreement on five key points: the need for an “immediate cessation” of violence, meaningful dialogue, mediation by an ASEAN envoy and the ASEAN secretary general, humanitarian aid facilitated by ASEAN and a formal visit by a delegation from ASEAN to meet with stakeholders in Myanmar. The resolution did specify that dialogue between parties in Myanmar must seek a “peaceful solution in the interests of the people”.

As an ASEAN bloc or individually, Southeast Asia’s leaders have little power to influence the course of Myanmar’s crisis, even if they do act. The Myanmar military has demonstrated in the past three months that it won’t be swayed by foreign pressure alone. The course of Myanmar’s crisis depends primarily on dynamics between its pro-democracy movement, ethnic armed groups and the recently-declared parallel civilian government—the National Unity Government. 

But as the junta struggles for legitimacy abroad and at home, international engagement remains a crucial tool in pushing for a return to civilian government. The most significant impact of the summit in Jakarta is as a gauge of the region’s stance on Myanmar’s crisis. The international community is looking to Southeast Asia to see how the region approaches the situation and in particular, how its leaders interact with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and his government.

Min Aung Hlaing. Photo: Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

ASEAN plan falls short of addressing crisis

As the Myanmar military struggles to govern the country amid widespread civil disobedience and economic dysfunction, some observers suggest Myanmar may become a “failed state”.

“There are clear echoes of Syria in 2011,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. “There, too, we saw peaceful protests met with unnecessary and clearly disproportionate force. The state’s brutal, persistent repression of its own people led to some individuals taking up arms, followed by a downward and rapidly expanding spiral of violence.” 

Many in the pro-democracy movement in the country reject the “failed state” characterization as it discounts their efforts to dislodge the military and create a federal democracy. Democracy advocates also say that international pressure on the junta remains essential, even if foreign governments have minimal leverage.

As far as pressuring the junta, the ASEAN agreement largely falls flat. Though it gives a framework for ASEAN to continue engagement, it expresses no opposition to the military government’s illegitimate rule and grants unnecessary legitimacy to Min Aung Hlaing and his junta.

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Tom Andrews expressed that the decision as to how to respond to the ASEAN summit now lies with the military junta.

“The result of the ASEAN summit will be found in Myanmar, not a document,” he said. “Will the killing stop? Will the terrorising of neighbourhoods end? Will the thousands abducted be released?”

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (left) and Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Photo: Government of Indonesia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Summit reaches weak consensus ignoring key issues

The summit’s consensus notably did not include a demand for the release of political prisoners, one of the key issues that Indonesia and Malaysia cited as they called for the emergency summit. There are currently over 3,300 political prisoners detained in Myanmar, many of them from the pro-democracy protest movement.

Reuters also reports that a draft of the consensus did include a call for the release of political prisoners but that it was removed, apparently without consultation with some leaders at the summit. Instead, the final statement from the ASEAN chair said the summit “heard calls for the release of all political prisoners including foreigners.”

To end the violence in Myanmar, the agreement also emphasized that “all parties” must “exercise utmost restraint”—an admonition that clearly panders to the junta, given that state security forces are the only party killing civilians.

“We tried not to accuse his side too much because we don’t care who’s causing it. We just stressed that the violence must stop,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. “For him, it’s the other side that’s causing the problems. But he agreed that violence must stop.”

Along with Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have been ASEAN’s strongest critics of the violence in Myanmar.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo called the situation in Myanmar “unacceptable”. “Violence must be stopped and democracy, stability and peace in Myanmar must be restored immediately,” he said.

Muhyiddin emphasized that ASEAN could not stand by and “ignore a serious situation that jeopardizes the peace, security and stability of ASEAN and the wider region”, adding that the regional bloc shouldn’t hide behind the principle of non-interference.

The heads of state of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam joined the summit and Laos, the Philippines and Thailand sent their foreign ministers to attend. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said they were unable to attend because of worsening waves of COVID-19 in their countries. 

Though Duterte has been largely silent on the coup in Myanmar, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had called for a return to the pre-coup status quo and spoke out for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi. 

Locsin also said that the West, especially the US, was to blame for creating the conditions that allowed for the coup by undermining Suu Kyi and jeopardizing Myanmar’s democracy. Philippine foreign secretary Locsin has said ASEAN must work with regional powers including China and India to bring Myanmar back to its democratic transition.

Though few observers expected the summit to produce tangible results, the meeting does show that ASEAN will at least stay engaged in Myanmar. The summit’s primary outcome is to set the tone for the region’s approach in Myanmar going forward, both as the ASEAN bloc and as individual member states. 

As many foreign governments may take ASEAN’s approach into account when looking for ways to pressure the junta, the summit’s failure to condemn the military or call for a return to civilian government is a major setback. As expected, Southeast Asia’s other authoritarian governments are uninterested in pushing back against Myanmar’s newest junta.

About the Author

ASEAN Today
ASEAN Today is a leading ASEAN commentary site. Our HQ is in Singapore. We publish business, political and fintech commentaries daily, covering ASEAN and Greater China. Twitter: @Asean_Today Facebook: The Asean Today