Interview

‘ASEAN Has Violated Its Own Charter’: Altsean-Burma Founder

By The Irrawaddy 22 April 2021

ASEAN will hold a summit in Jakarta this weekend to seek a solution to the deteriorating situation in Myanmar following the military coup in February.

Since the takeover, the country, which is a member of ASEAN, has witnessed a bloodbath with more than 700 civilians killed by the regime for protesting against military rule. The regime’s brutality has prompted widespread international condemnation, forcing the 10-member bloc to get involved. Following initiatives by some member states including Indonesia, the summit is scheduled for Saturday.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will personally attend the meeting, while the members of the country’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) formed by deposed elected lawmakers and others have not been invited.

Debbie Stothard, the founder of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean-Burma), an NGO that promotes human rights and democracy in Myanmar, said if the ASEAN governments stand on the side of the Myanmar junta, “They are not just standing against the people of Myanmar, they are standing against all the people of ASEAN.”

Debbie Stothard, founder of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean).

Here is an edited version of The Irrawaddy’s interview with her on the eve of the Saturday summit.

Q: How would you describe ASEAN’s stand on the coup? 

STOTHARD: ASEAN is trying to avoid taking a stand. They are sitting on their hands. And they are delayed in responding to this crisis. It’s actually made… the situation worse in Myanmar. The situation has escalated from an illegal coup to a nationwide civil war within two and a half months because ASEAN fails to act. So the problem is ASEAN has not taken a stand.

Now, finally they’ve started to move. They want to have an emergency summit, but their slowness to act really undermines their standing, their position, really undermines their position with the junta.

Now they’re only starting to realize … how serious the situation is. They should have had this summit in February.

ASEAN has invited the coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, but is not saying anything about the National Unity Government, which has requested an invitation. Did it do the right thing? 

This is the worst form of interference in the internal affairs of Myanmar. The ASEAN governments have broken their own ASEAN Charter. They are inviting an illegal military regime instead of the legal government [the NUG].

It’s as though ASEAN invited the separatist movement of southern Thailand to a summit and did not invite the national government of Thailand. It is as though ASEAN invited Donald Trump to a summit instead of President Biden. And they have broken the very principle of ASEAN.

But ASEAN would likely say it is acting as a mediator, as others have urged it to.

If they are going to be mediating, then all sides have to be at the table, not just the criminals.

So what should ASEAN do?

It is still not too late for ASEAN to redeem itself. ASEAN will get more respect from the junta, if they have the guts to invite the NUG to the meeting, and invite observers from the UN Security Council—if ASEAN really wants to make a difference, instead of [just] showing they are trying to do something.

When we talk about what ASEAN did, ASEAN claimed that it helped open up Myanmar because of the Cyclone Nargis humanitarian effort [in 2008]. But ASEAN was able to do that because they threatened the Burmese military junta at that time, [saying] they will not oppose the Western navies from entering the waters of Myanmar to deliver aid.

If you remember in those days [during] Cyclone Nargis, we had the US aircraft carriers stuck off the coast of Myanmar for two weeks. And there was also the Security Council’s attention; Myanmar had been put on the Security Council agenda. So ASEAN said, “You should do something, or else if the US Navy goes into your territory, we will not say anything.” [It was] only then that Senior General Than Shwe got off his ass and did something, and said, “OK, OK, we’ll allow some aid to come inside the country.”

So ASEAN claims credit for that; actually ASEAN would not be effective if we did not have the Western navies on standby. So in this case, ASEAN needs to invite the UN Security Council as a partner in resolving the crisis created by this illegal junta.

Now we see a lot of support in the UN—except from China and Russia—and the Western countries are rejecting the coup and the junta. Does it seem like a repeat of the situation in 2008, though the circumstances are different? Do we have that kind of support from the West at the moment to force ASEAN to intervene in this current crisis? 

 It is pretty clear that even the European Union, which has been one of the more conservative blocs in the international community, in the West, they also initiated [this week] … sanctions on MEC and MEHL [Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanma Economic Holdings Limited, two military controlled companies], so we can see very clearly all the other stakeholders and players understand the urgency of acting now before Myanmar becomes another Syria.

It is absolutely important for ASEAN to take the situation seriously because if Myanmar does become another Syria, then the countries which suffer the most are the ASEAN countries as well as India, Bangladesh and China. So China fully understands this. That’s why China is trying to say “ASEAN do something”, because China will not take a strong stand one way or another. They are protecting their interests.

The bigger problem we think is Russia, because Russia does not have to feel any impact if the situation deteriorated into another Syria. Russia has been supplying more weapons. In fact they did a big deal on weapons, just before the coup. So the reality is this; no single country in this world is indestructible. They are not invincible. Even Russia and China can be persuaded.

But the voice that is needed is the ASEAN voice. When we talk to the UN Security Council, they say, “Oh, it is important for the region and the country, to do something, to say something.” Well, the country has now broken; now it is important for the region to invite the UN Security Council to partner with them, to do some actions, to halt the violence. This is most urgent.

Within ASEAN, it looks like they are divided. For instance, Malaysia and Indonesia support the Myanmar people but the others do not. Thailand is sitting on the fence. Some observers are saying that ASEAN is divided, and that it would be unprecedented for the bloc to intervene in Myanmar’s affairs. What’s your view on that? 

Well, the brutality of the illegal junta has united the country of Myanmar. Hopefully, it inspires ASEAN to unite and do something. The reality is this: If ASEAN does not have any consensus for unity… they are basically telling every potential dictator, every armed group and army in this region to go ahead and have a coup; we are not going to do anything. They are basically encouraging all those forces that will use violence to grab power. They are simply sending a strong encouragement to those [forces]. We already see Myanmar is on fire and the fire is spreading. We do not want to see the whole region engulfed in flames, because no matter how rich some ASEAN countries are, all the economic wealth can just disappear, just like that. Look at what happened to Myanmar’s economy.


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