Myanmar dissidents seek an ‘ASEAN-Plus’ forum to end crisis

Protesters take part in a demonstration escorted by fighters against the military coup in Sagaing Township in the Sagaing Division of Myanmar on September 7, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

Myanmar’s dissident groups have proposed the establishment of an ASEAN-Plus inclusive platform to engage all stakeholders in resolving the ongoing political crises in the military-ruled country, the United Nations Special Envoy, Noeleen Heyzer, said.

The parallel National Unity Government (NUG), which was set up last year to fight the military junta, and ethnic armed organizations that have struggled for some autonomy for decades, appealed to her to initiate such a platform as they realize the limitations of regional grouping ASEAN in dealing with the crisis, she said.

Speaking at a seminar held by Singapore-based think tank ISEAS Yusof Ishak on September 5, the UN envoy said the forum would focus initially on the emergency humanitarian situation that is a direct result of the political crisis.

Myanmar has plunged into a deep crisis since military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing staged a coup in February last year to topple the elected civilian government under Aung San Suu Kyi, prompting fierce resistance from Myanmar people and ethnic groups.

The country is on the brink of civil war as the Tatmadaw—as the Myanmar military is known locally—has launched offensive operations against dissidents across the country. The military actions have escalated violence, causing a large number of casualties and displacing a huge number of people who have crossed the border and fled to neighboring countries.

The Tatmadaw is continuing with its disproportionate use of force and has intensified its attack on civilians and increased operations against resistance forces, using militias and aerial bombings. Civilian buildings and villages have been destroyed by fire and internally displaced populations have been attacked, according to Heyzer.

No breakthrough

ASEAN had adopted a five-point consensus in April last year, aiming to cease the violence, engage with all stakeholders and provide humanitarian support to the people. The group, however, is struggling to fully implement the plan due to lack of cooperation from the military junta’s State Administration Council (SAC).

Unlike the ASEAN Special envoy, Heyzer said she had managed to hold extensive and regular consultations with all key parties, including key figures of the National League for Democracy, leaders of the NUG and of the ethnic armed groups, despite objections from the SAC.

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah had earlier urged ASEAN and its members to engage with the junta’s opposition groups as he himself did, but many other member countries were reluctant to do so due to their good ties with the military government and the grouping’s rigid principle of non-interference.

So far, Singaporean national diplomat Heyzer has held 11 meetings with the leaders of the NUG, six with ethnic armed groups and several with civil society after her appointment as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar in mid-December last year.

She met with Min Aung Hliang during a visit to Nay Pyi Taw in August to convey the serious concerns of the UN and propose concrete steps to reduce the conflict and the suffering of the people. She insisted that her visit was not to legitimize the military regime.

Like the two visits to Myanmar of ASEAN special envoy Prak Sokhonn, the UN diplomat too was not allowed to meet Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now under detention.

“I am now very concerned about her health and well-being, and condemn her [latest] sentencing to hard labour,” Heyzer said at the seminar.

The UN General Assembly, together with the full support of the Security Council, has tasked the special envoy with playing a bridging role and actively engaging with key stakeholders in Myanmar, in the region and the international community. The UN diplomat considered her task as a complementary to ASEAN’s efforts to end the crisis in the strife-torn country, which is also its member.

“My close and regular consultations with ASEAN leaders, its special envoy, and foreign ministers of the group have reinforced the importance of such synergy,” she said. “ASEAN leaders have welcomed my inclusive engagement with all stakeholders and my assessment of the ground situation based on first-hand accounts that affected communities across the country have shared with me.”

Heyzer said she would address other issues beyond the ASEAN five-point consensus, including the return of civilian rule, possible election in 2023 and what is demanded by many parties — a so-called federal democratic regime — in military-ruled Myanmar.

Forgotten people

The UN initially appointed the Secretary-General’s special envoy on Myanmar affairs after communal conflict in 2017 forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to leave their homes, mostly in Rakhine state, to neighboring countries like Bangladesh and many ASEAN countries, including Thailand and Malaysia.

Conflict and violence after the 2021 coup worsened the refugee situation as Myanmar people and other ethnic groups fled to Thailand, in addition to more than 90,000 who had left since the bloody uprising in 1988.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees updated on August 8 that more than 903,000 people have been displaced since the coup last year, and 42,300 of them had fled to neighboring countries.

In late August, Heyzer visited refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where the Rohingya have taken refuge, to engage with them and help to ensure they do not become a “forgotten people”. She visited Malaysia in July to meet with representatives of several refugee communities from Myanmar, including Chin, Kachin, Mon, Rakhine, Myanmar Muslim and Rohingya.

The UN diplomat praised the role of the Malaysian government for officially recognizing the refugees as a ‘vulnerable group’ although, like many other ASEAN members, Kuala Lumpur was not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

In recognition of the tragic reality that large numbers of people will be forced to flee Myanmar to seek international protection, Heyzer called for greater urgency and sharing of responsibility by the international community, including scaling up humanitarian assistance and durable solutions for refugees from Myanmar.

“I will also urge ASEAN member states, in particular, to develop a regional framework for refugee protection as part of this responsibility sharing,” she told the ISEAS seminar.

By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk

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