Op-Ed: Myanmar’s membership of ASEAN challenged
It becomes clearer by the day that Myanmar’s military regime, headed by Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, is moving painfully slowly towards the implementation of the five-point consensus agreed in April. Eight months have now elapsed and Naypyidaw has accomplished very little toward the agreed objectives. This has created a big headache for the rest of ASEAN family.
When the coup unexpectedly took place on February 1st this year, ASEAN was calm and quick to address the crisis. The ASEAN leaders agreed to arrange an informal summit, along with numerous other meetings, to work out modalities as described in the consensus.
In early August, ASEAN appointed a special envoy, Brunei’s Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, who is now preparing to go to Myanmar to assess the situation on the ground and hold talks with all stakeholders. There is, however, a hitch. Yusof has repeatedly asked for a meeting with the imprisoned Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the former de facto president of National league for Democracy-led government. The ruling junta has consistently refused to grant this, but Yusof has a mandate from the ASEAN chair to consult will all parties to kick-start political dialogue.
At last week’s virtual ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting, Indonesia and Malaysia were adamant that Myanmar’s behaviour over the past eight months was unacceptable and must they be reprimanded. Indonesia has already called for the immediate suspension of Myanmar’s ASEAN membership, while Malaysia prefers prohibiting Naypyidaw from taking part in the ASEAN-related summits later this month. The ministers could not reach a consensus, as the other ASEAN members still think that Myanmar needs more time to manage internal security before it can fully comply with the consensus.
The internal security situation inside Myanmar has deteriorated and this is having adverse impacts on the ASEAN efforts to resolve the crisis. The resistance to the military regime in the past several weeks has intensified in various parts of the country, especially in the North and Northeast. The call by the National Unity Government for armed resistance in early September has resonated with some sections of the younger public. Sabotage of government outlets has increased. The number of internally displaced persons is alarming, surpassing 200,000.
So far, the military regime has used all tools available to counter the resistance, with attacks on protester’s families and relatives, including children and senior citizens. According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, 1,158 persons have died and 7,091 are in detention.
The current domestic situation, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, has already created a sense of hopelessness among the population, especially the younger segment. Responses given in random interviews with young people, conducted by the author over the week, have been very gloomy. Those who are safe inside their homes are now very depressed, which could have huge ramifications for future nation-building. Those who have stayed away from their families are trying to get out of Myanmar. Always facing untold danger, educated and skilled people are also trying to leave the country, as the military regime tightens its grip.
If Myanmar fails to comply with the special envoy’s request ahead of the ASEAN summits, or strike a compromise, there will be grave consequences for Myanmar’s future membership. In the past, Myanmar has asked to skip its rotational chairmanship in 2006, when the government under President Thein Sein admitted it was not ready to lead the bloc. This time around, Naypyidaw could do the same by voluntarily abstaining from attending the summits, to save face and consider ways to work with incoming ASEAN chair, Cambodia.
The nominal ASEAN chair, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, has been calm in assessing the current situation inside Myanmar, as the chairmanship will be passed to Cambodia later this month. If the junta remains defiant, the Sultan would not remain passive. Whatever action the ASEAN chair decides to take, it will certainly hurt the bloc’s solidarity and spirit at this juncture.
Any violation of the ASEAN family’s trust, which has been agreed in good faith, is far more sacrosanct and must not go unpunished.
By Kavi Chongkittavorn