.
O

n April 24th, ASEAN leaders convened in Jakarta for an emergency summit on the political and humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Myanmar since the February 1st military coup. They emerged claiming consensus on five ambitious objectives, including a cessation of violence, a visit from a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair, and secured access for the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin claimed, “We have succeeded...beyond our expectation.”

The agreement, however, began to unravel before it was even made public. Ultimately the summit served to condone military violence, illustrate China’s influence and provide cover for most of the world to turn away from the crushing violence that the junta continues to wield against civilians. Supporters of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, including the US, should leverage the UN Security Council to ensure a renewed focus on ending the abuses of the Tatmadaw and returning civilian government to power.

ASEAN’s lethargic convening of the summit, nearly three months after the coup, invited fierce backlash when member states invited the architect of the putsch, General Min Aung Hlaing, but snubbed Myanmar’s recently formalized National Unity Government (NUG). Human rights and democracy activist Wai Wai Nu advocated against ASEAN recognizing the military. Moe Zaw Oo, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, warned that no negotiations would be successful without NUG presence. Nonetheless, the summit went forward without civilian government representation.

For China, though, representation at the summit did not require attendance. Days before the meeting, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi placed a conference call to Thailand Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai and Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs, Erywan bin Pehin Yusof, who is also ASEAN’s rotating chair. The purpose of the call was to outline Beijing's expectations of the summit, which included a commitment to following “the ASEAN way” by prioritizing regional unity and repelling external interference.

By their own post-summit accounts, ASEAN leaders accomplished the task. Prime Minister Muhyiddin explained to reporters that the group refrained from “accus[ing Min Aung Hlaing’s] side too much because we don’t care who’s causing it.” The Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodore Loscin Jr, who attended in place of President Rodrigo Duterte, tweeted afterwards that the summit “felt like a close family meeting about a family problem.” In the end, the summit played to the advantage of the Tatmadaw, who saw their narrative that “both sides” are responsible for violence endorsed, and China, who advanced their position against outside interference without even showing up.

While the US and the UN have both emphasized the need for a regional response, the ASEAN leadership is neither the only nor the most credible group to deliver it. Several member states are informed by politics that align more closely with the junta than the democracy movement. Thailand, governed by a military that has drawn comparison to Myanmar’s, is currently threatening to deport three Myanmar journalists, even as the Tatmadaw openly targets and criminalizes free media. Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen orchestrated his own coup in 1997 and dissolved his political opposition in 2017.

The ASEAN response has been predictably impotent in protecting Myanmar civilians, but it advances its own political ideology, which allows for dictatorship and authoritarianism to preserve entrenched power and deter external influence. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement has been embraced by the Milk Tea Alliance, a democracy movement that includes Hong Kong, Thailand, and Taiwan and that boasts support from advocates across the region. As the Milk Tea Alliance builds popular support and regional solidarity, it gains traction in undermining ASEAN’s insular, undemocratic leadership.

The ASEAN consensus did succeed in lessening the international community’s urgency in responding to the ongoing crisis. After three subsequent weeks of sustained abuses, most egregiously on display in Mindat where the military is using civilians as human shields, the UN Security Council must mobilize renewed focus on Myanmar. Recently, the Council postponed a vote on a global arms embargo, with some diplomats citing a desire to build a broader coalition in support. While the veto-wielding authority of China and Russia is likely to undermine the embargo, its passage would not be without precedent. Member states in favor must work to advance its passage urgently, securing abstentions from China and Russia if possible, while also advancing conversations on no fly zones, responsibility to protect, and humanitarian access. The Security Council can force a public conversation on the obligations Myanmar is owed and can ensure that the ineffectual ASEAN consensus does not sideline the wider international debate.

The ASEAN summit was a predictable failure in delivering security and protection for Myanmar civilians. But a second failure is still in the works. The agreement has diminished the international attention urgently needed to sustain the pro-democracy movement on the ground. The US, which has most recently demonstrated resolve in opposing the military by sanctioning the State Administrative Council, should leverage the Security Council to lead a renewed focus on Myanmar. Amid increasing violence and economic strife, the Civil Disobedience Movement has sustained country-wide support. The UN Security Council must not prioritize consensus of its members over efforts to hold the Tatmadaw accountability for their crimes against humanity and to restore the political rights of Myanmar’s people.

About
Carolyn Nash
:
Carolyn Nash (@caroinash) has managed international human rights and governance programs for UNESCO, UNODC, and Trocaire. She has worked in Myanmar, Indonesia, East Timor, Kenya, and Uganda.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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“The ASEAN Way” Leads Nowhere for Myanmar

Spring Revolution YGN, Myanmar, May 11, 2021. Photo by Saw Wunna via Unsplash.

May 24, 2021

ASEAN’s lethargic convening of the summit, nearly three months after the coup, invited fierce backlash.

O

n April 24th, ASEAN leaders convened in Jakarta for an emergency summit on the political and humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Myanmar since the February 1st military coup. They emerged claiming consensus on five ambitious objectives, including a cessation of violence, a visit from a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair, and secured access for the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin claimed, “We have succeeded...beyond our expectation.”

The agreement, however, began to unravel before it was even made public. Ultimately the summit served to condone military violence, illustrate China’s influence and provide cover for most of the world to turn away from the crushing violence that the junta continues to wield against civilians. Supporters of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, including the US, should leverage the UN Security Council to ensure a renewed focus on ending the abuses of the Tatmadaw and returning civilian government to power.

ASEAN’s lethargic convening of the summit, nearly three months after the coup, invited fierce backlash when member states invited the architect of the putsch, General Min Aung Hlaing, but snubbed Myanmar’s recently formalized National Unity Government (NUG). Human rights and democracy activist Wai Wai Nu advocated against ASEAN recognizing the military. Moe Zaw Oo, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, warned that no negotiations would be successful without NUG presence. Nonetheless, the summit went forward without civilian government representation.

For China, though, representation at the summit did not require attendance. Days before the meeting, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi placed a conference call to Thailand Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai and Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs, Erywan bin Pehin Yusof, who is also ASEAN’s rotating chair. The purpose of the call was to outline Beijing's expectations of the summit, which included a commitment to following “the ASEAN way” by prioritizing regional unity and repelling external interference.

By their own post-summit accounts, ASEAN leaders accomplished the task. Prime Minister Muhyiddin explained to reporters that the group refrained from “accus[ing Min Aung Hlaing’s] side too much because we don’t care who’s causing it.” The Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodore Loscin Jr, who attended in place of President Rodrigo Duterte, tweeted afterwards that the summit “felt like a close family meeting about a family problem.” In the end, the summit played to the advantage of the Tatmadaw, who saw their narrative that “both sides” are responsible for violence endorsed, and China, who advanced their position against outside interference without even showing up.

While the US and the UN have both emphasized the need for a regional response, the ASEAN leadership is neither the only nor the most credible group to deliver it. Several member states are informed by politics that align more closely with the junta than the democracy movement. Thailand, governed by a military that has drawn comparison to Myanmar’s, is currently threatening to deport three Myanmar journalists, even as the Tatmadaw openly targets and criminalizes free media. Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen orchestrated his own coup in 1997 and dissolved his political opposition in 2017.

The ASEAN response has been predictably impotent in protecting Myanmar civilians, but it advances its own political ideology, which allows for dictatorship and authoritarianism to preserve entrenched power and deter external influence. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement has been embraced by the Milk Tea Alliance, a democracy movement that includes Hong Kong, Thailand, and Taiwan and that boasts support from advocates across the region. As the Milk Tea Alliance builds popular support and regional solidarity, it gains traction in undermining ASEAN’s insular, undemocratic leadership.

The ASEAN consensus did succeed in lessening the international community’s urgency in responding to the ongoing crisis. After three subsequent weeks of sustained abuses, most egregiously on display in Mindat where the military is using civilians as human shields, the UN Security Council must mobilize renewed focus on Myanmar. Recently, the Council postponed a vote on a global arms embargo, with some diplomats citing a desire to build a broader coalition in support. While the veto-wielding authority of China and Russia is likely to undermine the embargo, its passage would not be without precedent. Member states in favor must work to advance its passage urgently, securing abstentions from China and Russia if possible, while also advancing conversations on no fly zones, responsibility to protect, and humanitarian access. The Security Council can force a public conversation on the obligations Myanmar is owed and can ensure that the ineffectual ASEAN consensus does not sideline the wider international debate.

The ASEAN summit was a predictable failure in delivering security and protection for Myanmar civilians. But a second failure is still in the works. The agreement has diminished the international attention urgently needed to sustain the pro-democracy movement on the ground. The US, which has most recently demonstrated resolve in opposing the military by sanctioning the State Administrative Council, should leverage the Security Council to lead a renewed focus on Myanmar. Amid increasing violence and economic strife, the Civil Disobedience Movement has sustained country-wide support. The UN Security Council must not prioritize consensus of its members over efforts to hold the Tatmadaw accountability for their crimes against humanity and to restore the political rights of Myanmar’s people.

About
Carolyn Nash
:
Carolyn Nash (@caroinash) has managed international human rights and governance programs for UNESCO, UNODC, and Trocaire. She has worked in Myanmar, Indonesia, East Timor, Kenya, and Uganda.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.