Myanmar and the ASEAN Summit: Is ASEAN Centrality Enough?

23 April 2021
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Three months into the Constitutionally questionable takeover of the Myanmar government by its military, the Tatmadaw, on February 1, aborting the results of the November 2020 general elections in favor of the National League of Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on what was essentially an election dispute, the situation in Myanmar continues to be extremely polarized, intensely confrontational and highly volatile. Like Afghanistan after the Soviet intervention, and Syria after the Arab Spring, Myanmar may never be the same again. But whether it descends into chaos and turmoil like them will depend a great deal on the ability of all sides internally to make compromises, international restraint and support, and a decisive ASEAN.

The signs are not good. The ruthless crackdown by the Tatmadaw aimed at silencing any opposition to the takeover resulting in close to 750 deaths and more than 3000 detained and arrested including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and a slew of draconian laws and amendments suppressing fundamental rights and allowing the state authorities unrestrained powers of arrest, detention, violations of privacy and data, and control over communications, has generated widespread anger against the regime and virtually wiped out any tolerance for a military role in government any more. If successful, the Tatmadaw’s actions can only push Myanmar back to its isolation since the 1960s, this time with an internet wall in addition, undoing all that it has achieved since former military strong man Sr. Gen. than Shwe’s 7-stage road map to democracy. This will not be sustainable.

Two features distinguish the protests this time from 1988. First, a new generation has come of age since the USDP government of U Thein Sein that has tasted political, media and social media freedoms, the internet, and contacts with the outside world after 50 years of closed military rule, that it is determined not to sacrifice. Although street protests have ebbed somewhat, its embers are very much alive, and there are signs that public opposition to military rule especially in the Bamar heartland is mutating and moving to the countryside and borderlands, and could turn to armed struggle with help from sympathetic Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs).

Second, when the Tatmadaw crushed the student-led agitation in the 1990s, it was able to reach out to the ethnic insurgencies ringing the Bamar heartland and sign individual peace agreements with most of them some with the help of the Chinese. This time, although Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has signaled a continuity of the peace process among other things in his address to the Myanmar people on February 8, and has invited ethnic political parties and armed organizations to support its new State Administrative Council, most have shown solidarity with the opposition and kept a distance. Indeed, some powerful EAOs like the Kachin and Karen armed organizations, have renewed hostilities including attacks on military bases. The Tatmadaw have in turn launched air attacks including jets and helicopter gunships at EAO positions, leading to a movement of refugees in Karen state seeking shelter in Thailand being turned back. As many as 250,000 are reported to be internally displaced, and UN organizations are anticipating a food  and humanitarian crisis.

Side by side, the pro-democracy anti-Tatmadaw opposition is also organizing itself politically. Newly elected legislators who have formed a Committee Representing the Myanmar Parliament (the CRPH), have adopted a Charter calling for a ‘federal democratic union’ and even a federal army aimed at appealing to Myanmar’s ethnic constituencies. On April 16, they announced the formation of a virtual National Unity Government (NUG) as the legitimately elected government of Myanmar and are seeking international recognition for it. Progress towards a federal union reconciling ethno-centric Bamar mindsets and ethnic aspirations of equality and sharing of power and resources will however require much more than anti-Tatmadaw sentiments.

Internationally, the US and the West in general have condemned the ‘coup’ and imposed targeted sanctions against the Tatmadaw although having shunned Myanmar since the 1990s, they have very little leverage over the Generals. Most Asian capitals that have developed equities with the military government over the last 60 years of their rule which they are reluctant to jettison without a viable alternative in sight, have expressed varying levels of concern but stopped short of tough condemnations.

China, which had cultivated good relations with the NLD and faced veiled criticism from Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing himself over its long suspected support for EAOs under its influence, has been caught off balance in Myanmar once again, and is groping for a more decisive response. It is seen as the Tatmadaw’s primary supporter by the protestors, but it is probably Russia’s steady support and example of the Thai military next door that may have emboldened Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to take such precipitate action. Russia may well have also played its Indo-Pacific card vis-à-vis the Quad through Myanmar. India has made veiled official statements against the Tatmadaw’s actions without specifically naming it, but some of its actions have conveyed conflicting messages.

China and Russia have shielded the Myanmar military regime from stronger statements or action in the UN Security Council on the grounds that such action would be counter-productive, but are watching US actions on the ground. Any pro-active support by it to the opposition such as the Responsibility to Protect doctrine invoked by many of the protestors in its neighborhood would invite a reaction and could extend China-Quad competition in the Indo-Pacific into the Bay of Bengal and involve Russia on China’s side as well.

ASEAN has been active but unable to engage either the Tatmadaw or the opposition in a meaningful dialogue so far. By and large, the international community has been content to let ASEAN take the lead in finding a resolution to the crisis on the principle of ASEAN centrality rather than risk burning their fingers themselves. So far, this has kept the Myanmar crisis from becoming a proxy in a new Cold War with the US on one side, and China and Russia on the other. The rest of Asia has a vested interest in keeping it this way. That is one reason why the ASEAN initiative deserves all the support it can get.

All eyes are now on the special ASEAN Summit at Jakarta on April 24. ASEAN unity, consensus and centrality will be tested. So far, the prospects do not look bright. ASEAN can provide the most dignified fig leaf for the military to walk back the takeover, but the Tatmadaw has shown no willingness to compromise. Meanwhile, the NUG has challenged Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s presence in Jakarta and demanded that it be invited.

How ASEAN navigates these irreconciliable positions will determine if the Myanmar crisis can be contained. If it succeeds in even bringing the Tatmadaw and NUG together, commence a dialogue, and chart out a new road map for a return to democracy, it will be a triumph for ASEAN.

But if it tends towards solutions tolerating the regime as it will be prone to out of its own concerns over instability and ‘too much democracy’, it will lose credibility in Myanmar and beyond. It may then push Myanmar’s immediate neighbors, India, China, Thailand and Bangladesh, who will face the most immediate brunt of a likely spiraling of conflict and instability next door, to find ways to deal with the situation amidst intensifying US-China-Russia suspicions and contest spilling over into Myanmar. This has to be avoided. As ASEAN meets for its Summit, it may consider enlarging its initiative to include Myanmar’s regional neighbors and Asian powers like Japan to find an Asian solution to the crisis.

The views shared belong to individual faculty and researchers and do not represent an institutional stance on the issue.