When the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations holds a special summit Saturday to discuss Myanmar, the regional body will be under as much scrutiny as the general who led the February coup ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Opponents of the junta are furious that ASEAN is welcoming its chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to its meeting in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, arguing that because he seized power by force, he is not Myanmar’s legitimate leader. Also weighing heavily against him is the lethal violence perpetrated by the security forces he commands, responsible for killing hundreds of largely peaceful protesters and bystanders.
“Min Aung Hlaing, who faces international sanctions for his role in military atrocities and the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, should not be welcomed at an intergovernmental gathering to address a crisis he created,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“ASEAN members should instead take this opportunity to impose targeted, economic sanctions on junta leaders and on businesses that fund the junta, and press the junta to release political detainees, end abuses, and restore the country’s democratically elected government.”
The junta’s foes have promoted the idea that the opposition’s parallel National Unity Government, recently established by the elected lawmakers the army barred from being seated, should represent Myanmar, or at least have some role in the Jakarta meeting. It has not been invited.
“It’s unacceptable that they invite this murderer-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who has just killed more than 730 people in Myanmar, and I think it is very unfortunate that they, again and again, talk to the military generals and not to the civilian government of Myanmar, which is the NUG,” says the parallel government’s Minister of International Cooperation, Dr. Sasa, who uses one name.
Evan Laksmana, a researcher for Indonesia’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank with close government ties, told The Associated Press there is a very practical reason for engaging Min Aung Hlaing face to face.
ASEAN recognizes “the reality is that one party is doing the violence, which is the military, and therefore that’s why the military is being called to the meeting. So, this is not in any way conferring legitimacy to the military regime,” he said.
By talking to the general, ASEAN hopes to initiate a longer-term framework process, starting with ending the violence, that will “hopefully help facilitate dialogue among all the stakeholders in Myanmar, not just [with] the military regime.”
Skeptics feel ASEAN faces more basic problems in seeking to resolve Myanmar’s crisis. They point to the divergent interests of the group’s members, its longstanding conventions of seeking consensus and avoiding interference in each other’s affairs, and the historic obstinacy of Myanmar’s generals.
One faction in the group, comprising Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, believes the instability engendered by the coup threatens the entire region as well as ASEAN’s credibility as a group powerful enough to act independently of big power influence.
They also point out that the ASEAN Charter — adopted in 2007, 40 years after the group’s founding — includes democracy, human rights, good governance and rule of law as guiding principles.
“Now is a grave time for ASEAN’s much-touted centrality, the idea that ASEAN is a central regional platform for regional dialogue, for promoting peace and stability in the region,” said Prof. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. He said that conception of ASEAN is now facing “its most severe, grave challenge” in 53 years of existence.
Member countries with more authoritarian regimes — Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — see little benefit in paying more than lip service to such principles and have treated Myanmar’s crisis as its own internal matter.
The Jakarta meeting is a hybrid one, with onsite attendance encouraged but virtual participation by video an option because of the coronavirus pandemic. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte both announced they will stay home and send their foreign ministers in their stead, but they are dealing with serious COVID-19 outbreaks, obscuring any political message in their decisions.
“It is more difficult to communicate on a personal level between the leaders without the leaders being present fully, particularly with regards to the prime minister of Thailand, whom we believe to have the best relationship with the current senior general from Myanmar,” observed Indonesia’s Laksmana.
He believes ASEAN has a unique opportunity to engage productively with Myanmar’s ruling junta “because right now there is no other option on the table.”
“We haven’t seen any progress from the U.N. Security Council, for example. There is no collective effort by other countries. This is it. This is the first potential breakthrough for the current crisis,” he told The Associated Press.
U.N. specialized agencies and experts have been active in criticizing the coup and the junta’s crackdown. U.N. Special Envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener will not take part in ASEAN’s deliberations, but intends to take part in sideline consultations. The junta has rejected her repeated requests to visit Myanmar.
The Security Council could effectively coordinate actions such as arms embargoes to pressure the junta, but Russia and China, major weapons suppliers to the junta, would veto such moves.
Western nations have already enacted targeted sanctions against members of the junta and businesses giving them financial support, but Myanmar’s past military governments have successfully stood up to such pressures, and would be expected to do so again, especially with support from Beijing.
ASEAN prefers quiet diplomacy to intimidation, seeking incremental gains. Even getting the two Myanmar sides to talk to each other could take some time, acknowledges Laksmana.
“I think the gravity of the situation on the ground is as such now that there is no space or even willingness for dialogue until we end the violence,” he said.
“So, I think the first steps would be to what extent can ASEAN facilitate the observance of a humanitarian pause first and then the delivery of the humanitarian aid,” he said. Only after that might a forum be possible where all the stakeholders could talk.
A Southeast Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said another opening move is under consideration. This would involve having ASEAN's current chairman, Brunei's Prime Minister Hassanal Bolkiah, travel to Myanmar for meetings with the military leadership and Suu Kyi’s camp to encourage dialogue. He would go there with the ASEAN Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi — also from Brunei — if the junta gives them the nod.
ASEAN-style diplomacy with Myanmar has borne fruit in the past. The military regime in charge in 2008 was incapable of mounting sufficient rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of devastating Cyclone Nargis but refused to open up the country to an international aid effort. ASEAN took the initiative in offering to open a channel for foreign assistance, and the much-needed aid started flowing.