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Opinion

Myanmar's crisis is ASEAN's crisis

Regional bloc should seek a constructive solution

| Myanmar
Protesters gather in front of armored vehicles in Yangon on Feb. 15: The junta should be aware that ASEAN's patience may not last.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has made it clear in the wake of the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar that it will no longer defend the country's behavior. But rather than isolate the junta, regional leaders have indicated they would prefer to work toward restoring the democratic process.

If they fail, it will greatly damage ASEAN's credibility -- and centrality -- in the eyes of the international community. More than that, it will dash international hopes for any kind of mediation process to resolve the crisis. While ASEAN's charter lacks any provision for expelling a member country, the 10-nation grouping has some leverage. It could pressure Myanmar to leave ASEAN temporarily.

Still, ASEAN foreign ministers -- at Indonesia's urging -- are preparing to discuss the situation in the hope of forging a consensus, but time is running out. They know they must reach an agreement before confrontations between the demonstrators and security forces in Myanmar turn more violent and spin out of control.

Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi recently held talks with Singapore and Brunei, the current ASEAN chair, and on Wednesday met with her Thai counterpart, Don Pramudwinai, in Bangkok. Unexpectedly, the junta's foreign affairs spokesman, Wunna Maung Lwin, also arrived in Bangkok on Wednesday to meet Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Wunna Maung Lwin met separately with Marsudi and Don to discuss "developments in Myanmar," and prospects for an informal ASEAN meeting on the situation, preparing the ground for a special ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting to be held next week in Jakarta, which will not feature a specific agenda nor issue any outcome document.

In a statement issued by the bloc's current chairman, Brunei, on Feb. 2, the day after the coup, ASEAN said it expected Myanmar to commit to ASEAN's charter principles. Brunei's leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, has since agreed to Indonesia and Malaysia's suggestion for a special "family" meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, ostensibly to deal with COVID-19, but with Myanmar as the dominant subtext.

Thailand is set to play a crucial role in the group's deliberations, with Myanmar's coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing, sending a personal letter on the day of the coup to Prayuth -- himself a former army general who led the 2014 coup that toppled Yingluck Shinawatra -- appealing for Thailand's "physical and intellectual" support. Placing Prayuth in an awkward situation, the letter effectively prevented the Thai government from commenting further on the situation in Myanmar.

Thailand has expressed hopes that the Myanmar crisis can be resolved "peacefully," in the interests of its people. It has also assured the junta that the status of millions of Myanmar workers in Thailand would be protected, as long as they abide by the law. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, on the other hand, expressed stronger concerns, with Singapore describing the shooting of protesters as "inexcusable."

ASEAN's initiative puts the onus on the junta to resolve the crisis, and brings with it expectations of a detailed road map for a return to democracy within a year. Myanmar's swelling protest movement has rejected the junta's promise to hold new elections, demanding the restoration of the government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, now in detention.

Survivors of Cyclone Nargis line up for relief supplies in the hardest-hit Irrawaddy Delta region of Myanmar in June 2008.   © Reuters

To continue dialogue with its regional neighbors, however, the junta knows it must make an effort to ease domestic tensions and heed ASEAN's advice. This includes requests that the junta should pledge adherence to three main guidelines: no violence against peaceful protesters, a democratic transition process through dialogue and negotiations, and respect for the ASEAN Charter, which enshrines the principle of ASEAN centrality in regional cooperation and peaceful settlement of disputes through dialogue and cooperation.

In return, ASEAN would endorse further investigation of allegations by Myanmar's military leaders of voter-list fraud in the November elections. This could include an investigative task force composed of select members nominated by the junta, including officials from ASEAN.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed around 84,000 people in Myanmar, ASEAN played a key role in arranging humanitarian assistance to the then-isolated country. This time, the junta must be persuaded that its own interests, as well as those of Myanmar's people, will be best served by allowing ASEAN, and selected international organizations, to help broker a compromise that prevents the imposition of international sanctions.

Continued consultation between ASEAN and its key dialogue partners will also be necessary to establish acceptable thresholds for a return to democracy.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has said that sanctions would only hurt ordinary people, reflecting ASEAN's common view. But the junta should be aware that ASEAN may run out of patience. Singapore has already signaled a tougher line following the deaths of several protesters.

As a result, the junta has to act fast to blunt growing outrage and civil disobedience, which is gaining momentum by the day. Although the junta maintains that it has shown relative restraint in responding to the protests, the chances of violence are increasing.

If the junta remains intransigent and continues the systematic suppression and prosecution of peaceful protesters, ASEAN might be forced to reprimand Myanmar. If that happens, whatever action is taken, it would represent an unprecedented move in the organization's 54-year history and be an action of last resort.

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