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Myanmar Crisis

ASEAN risks enabling Myanmar junta to buy time

Bloc's 'soft intervention' raises both doubts and hopes for end to coup crisis

Myanmar's junta chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, left, is welcomed at Soekarno Hatta International Airport on the outskirts of Jakarta on April 24.   © Reuters

YANGON/BANGKOK -- The landmark meeting in Jakarta on April 24 between leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Myanmar's junta chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, has been portrayed as everything from a qualified success to a dismal failure.

According to ASEAN insiders, the meeting was a success in that it happened at all in an organization which prides itself on the principle of noninterference in each other's affairs. Some analysts say it was neither a triumph nor a defeat, but something in between. To the defiant coup leader, participation in the meeting was a vindication of his Feb. 1 power grab, as portrayed by the triumphant front page headline in the state media that proclaimed: "Myanmar keeps close cooperation with ASEAN member countries in accord with the ASEAN Charter: Senior General."

On the streets of Myanmar's cities, and on social media, few were buying that spin. The mood among activists and protesters was one of disillusionment and disappointment -- with ASEAN and other international organizations.

"The fact that Min Aung Hlaing walked in and out freely of the Jakarta summit without being asked by ASEAN to restore democracy and release all political prisoners makes the institution a joke," said Erik Thant, a young Myanmar protester in Yangon. "Also, ASEAN hasn't outlined how they will monitor whether Min Aung Hlaing fulfills his promises, and how they would hold him to account."

Citing the precedent of when the Commonwealth, which includes three ASEAN countries (Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia), suspended or barred members for staging coups or maintaining apartheid regimes, Thant said "the right option for ASEAN is to kick Myanmar out of the bloc until the coup is over."

But for ASEAN leaders, the summit created new opportunities to inject fresh momentum into a regional bloc that has been running low on unity and dynamism. "We have succeeded," Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said after the Saturday meeting, noting that the outcome of the meeting "exceeded expectations."

To regional analysts, the summit and its outcome highlighted both ASEAN's shortcomings and its strengths as it faced what many consider its greatest test since its founding in 1967.

The meeting ended with the ASEAN Secretariat issuing a statement saying a consensus had been reached with Myanmar on points that went beyond what many had expected. The five-point "consensus plan" included a call for an immediate cessation of violence; constructive dialogue "among all parties concerned" to reach a peaceful solution; the appointment of a special envoy from ASEAN; humanitarian assistance to be provided by ASEAN's disaster relief center, and for the ASEAN special envoy to visit to visit Myanmar to meet with "all parties concerned." Missing was a point included in an earlier draft, which called for the release of political prisoners, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Demonstrators protest in support of the anti-coup movement n Myanmar near the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretariat building in Jakarta on April 24.   © Reuters

Despite its flaws, the outcome was significant, according to Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "Now, ASEAN is in the driver's seat," he said. "ASEAN engagement with the junta is a form of soft intervention; it can happen through peer pressure, a bit like pressuring a family member," he said.

The consensus plan will guide ASEAN's actions in the days and weeks to come, he added. Verification, particularly of the undertaking to halt violence, is a problem without a monitoring force on the ground, he acknowledged. "After April 25, there should be no casualties on the streets among the protesters. Otherwise, all the promises could break down and lead to mutual distrust," he said.

Some critics are more skeptical: "I don't think the five consensus points would reflect what the people of Myanmar want," Aye, a female activist now in hiding in Myanmar, told Nikkei Asia. "There are many steps needed before [implementation], such as the release of detainees and investigating the killings."

To supporters of the nascent National Unity Government that opposes the coup, the summit was a rejection of their claims that the ousted lawmakers had a legitimate right to be invited instead of the junta. In a nod to the NUG, though, a letter from Zin Mar Aung, the NUG minister for foreign affairs, was read out to the ASEAN representatives, according to Burmese media. Appealing to the regional leaders to "listen to the voices of Myanmar people," she urged ASEAN not to stand with the "illegitimate coup leaders."

Now that ASEAN has made its statements, it is time for action, the NUG spokesman and minister for international cooperation Sasa told Nikkei Asia. "If they fail to act, we will continue building an international coalition of like-minded countries. If there are stronger [Western] sanctions, it will affect Singapore and the rest of ASEAN, as well as China. That means they do have to listen to us. If they fail to listen, we will go to the U.S., EU and U.K., and ask them to help," he said.

There are already worries that the junta is undermining the agreement, with continuing incidents of violence and ongoing arrests reported daily since the Saturday summit. The military appears to be switching to more covert forms of savagery, said a Yangon-based activist who is with the Civil Disobedience Movement. "We are not seeing troops roaming the streets shooting into houses, shooting children, like we saw before, but what we are still seeing are nightly raids on houses, arrests, beatings and targeted killings. This hasn't changed, it's merely gone below the radar," he said.

Worse are indications that the junta is turning to other forms of repression, particularly through further blockage of the internet, which has been vital in relaying events to the outside world. On Monday it was confirmed that authorities were preparing a "whitelist" focusing on the business and banking sectors, to enable denial of internet access for getting news and communications purposes.

For some ASEAN observers, the "consensus" approach falls far short of what is needed to curb the violence. "To me consensus is just the tip of a very large iceberg. It will be a hollow agreement if ASEAN can't enforce those five points," said Pou Sothirak, executive director of the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace in Phnom Penh and a former Cambodian ambassador. "On the surface, ASEAN may be seen as striking good deals, to show that it collectively can do something meaningful, but the real hurdle is how to achieve this five-point consensus plan, and also, what is the trade-off?"

Allowing the junta leader to attend ASEAN's highest-level forum to justify the coup was the wrong move, he added. "Now, ASEAN seems effectively trapped. Min Aung Hlaing will have the upper hand, if and when the ASEAN special envoy team is dispatched. He is controlling the show instead. Any slight mistake or misjudgment will dearly cost ASEAN credibility."

Independent analysts also offered criticism. "The readout from the ASEAN meeting lacked substance on the specific things that needed to change and the steps that were needed to get there," said security and politics analyst Kim Jolliffe, "Calls for 'detainees to be released' were heard, for example, but there was no wider discussion about the basic rule of law standards needed to justify the ongoing imprisonment of elected leaders, nor were there any clear demands to ensure those people legal counsel or other basic rights."

Jolliffe said the request to reduce violence among "all sides" left too much to interpretation and failed to stipulate the specific measures, such as airstrikes, torture and nightly raids and arrests, that had to end.

A possible solution could be if all sides agreed to accept an international civilian protection mission, according to Ian Martin and Charles Petrie, former senior U.N. officials. Myanmar's military would need to be persuaded to desist from violence and accept an international presence, they wrote in the Bangkok Post. "The objective should be to build up pressure on them, and to seek their reluctant acquiescence. The most important pressure on the junta to accept such a mission would come from the region, not only ASEAN but others, including China."

If the situation facing the junta deteriorates amid escalating violence and economic collapse, the ASEAN proposal could possibly appear attractive to its leaders. "The fact Min Aung Hlaing met the U.N. envoy, the fact he came at all to Jakarta, showed his craving for international recognition, legitimacy, and attention," said a Yangon-based Western diplomat. "It was not just for practical reasons -- to sell his unlawful coup -- he may be ready at some point to listen to a face-saving way out."

The diplomat was referring to the fact the U.N. Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, went to Jakarta and held a 45-minute meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, who had refused to take her calls since the Feb. 1 coup. She is known to have raised concerns about the military crackdown against protests and the fate of more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslims who were brutally expelled from western Myanmar to Bangladesh in 2017. She has also requested permission to visit Myanmar.

The time factor adds to pressure on ASEAN to act on its rhetoric, a point underlined by the Malaysian prime minister. He bluntly warned his fellow leaders that the five-point program should not be used to "buy time," particularly when "a domestic situation jeopardizes the peace, security, and stability of ASEAN and the wider region," and there is "international clamor for resolute action."

"If progress can be defined as getting the junta to agree to the ASEAN-led and coordinated process, then, yes, ASEAN has made some headway by getting an entry point, literally and figuratively, to a longer-term sustained intervention in Myanmar," said Moe Thuzar, co-coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Program at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

The next steps should be about holding the junta to its commitment to work constructively with ASEAN, she noted. "It is also important for ASEAN to consult with the NUG for their input on implementation details. For example, the violence is exclusively committed by one party, and the people of Myanmar -- especially unarmed protesters -- may be feeling somewhat betrayed by the connotation that violence was committed on both sides."

An immediate challenge for ASEAN is determining who will fill the newly created post of ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar. Among the names under discussion are former Indonesian Foreign Minister Hussain Wirajuda, former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, or possibly a senior Thai figure.

Time is running out, and while the consensus plan is an important step forward in ASEAN's new resolve to address Myanmar's crisis, its latest moves have left widespread doubt about the junta's commitment to adhere to the plan -- and the organization's ability to ensure compliance.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, former permanent secretary of Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said ASEAN must continue to "pressure, probe and prod" in pursuit of its efforts to help resolve the situation and help Myanmar's people. "The summit should not be an end in itself, but the beginning of a process of diplomatic engagement for ASEAN," he said.

While doubts hang over the junta's commitment to fall in line with ASEAN's plan, "it is essential to put in place an implementation timeline and terms of reference for the ASEAN delegation, and to keep up the pressure for release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi," he said.

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