Myanmar’s Escalating Conflict Threatens ASEAN Stability

By The Irrawaddy 30 March 2021

Britain has called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations (UN) Security Council on the crisis in Myanmar, after scores of protesters including children were gunned down over the weekend.

The UN Security Council has already voiced “deep concern” over the military coup in Myanmar and called for the “release of all detainees”, including ousted State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.

But there is no sign that the junta, known officially as the State Administrative Council, will stop its lethal crackdown on anti-regime protesters. Myanmar’s two top military leaders, Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy Gen Soe Win, have instead travelled separately to Mandalay and Shan State.

With activists fleeing to the borders with Thailand and India, Myanmar’s neighbors are increasingly concerned by the growing instability in the country. Thousands of Karen refugees fled to Thailand over the weekend following a series of airstrikes by the military.

The UN, international relief organizations and foreign embassies are greatly concerned at the use of airstrikes against the civilian population and the looming refugee crisis on the border.

It has been suggested that a Myanmar Air Force fighter plane may have entered Thai air space during the airstrikes. The bombs fell just a few hundred metres from Thailand. A knowledgeable source said that in all probability the plane flew over Thai territory during its bombing run, as the Salween River that marks the border has many bends and it would have been very difficult for the pilot to avoid flying over Thailand.

Karen people along the border are now living in fear of further airstrikes and the prospect of many more civilians dying at the hands of the Myanmar military.

Karen villagers flee the regime airstrike. (Photo: KIC)

The insecurity along the frontiers is now adding a new dimension to an already volatile crisis set off by the junta’s Feb.1 coup.

Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is already on the defensive over his government’s position on the Myanmar crisis. “In what ways do we support Myanmar troops? Nobody supports the use of violence against the people,” he replied to a question from the media.

Thailand’s leader also defended the Thai military’s decision to send representatives to Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day celebrations on March 27, saying that Thailand needs to engage and maintain a communications channel with the junta.

“It is a military channel. We need mechanisms which will enable us to follow political developments in Myanmar. Our countries share a border and we will be affected,” he said. But around 100 civilians were killed by security forces on March 27, the bloodiest day since the coup and one since described as a “day of shame”.

Prayut said that the Thai authorities were preparing for a possible flood of refugees fleeing the violence in Myanmar. “We don’t want an exodus into our territory, but we will observe human rights, too.”

But he also said that the Thai government will have to carefully weigh this against measures imposed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other international organizations, according to the Bangkok Post.

The feeble ASEAN exercises a non-interference policy but diplomats in Bangkok suspect that if the situation in Myanmar becomes increasingly unstable and slides towards civil war, the regional grouping will be forced to intervene in Myanmar affairs.

Singapore, Myanmar’s largest investor, is concerned. Singapore foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan has called the situation in Myanmar “an unfolding tragedy” that will take time to overcome, and said it was essential for Southeast Asian countries to have a position on how to respond.

“It is going to take quite some time to resolve. I must confess to you that I am pessimistic,” Balakrishnan told local media, according to a transcript released on Monday.

Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have pushed for an urgent high-level meeting on Myanmar and have condemned the military crackdown, which has killed over 500 people, according to activists. Singapore said it supports such a meeting. The position of Thailand is still unknown.

“It is essential for ASEAN’s credibility, centrality and relevance to have a view, have a position and to be able to offer some constructive assistance to Myanmar,” Balakrishnan said. “But do not expect quick solutions.”

Balakrishnan also said it was “essential for ASEAN to consider, to contemplate, to support and to be a constructive presence inside Myanmar.” He said he hoped Myanmar would take into consideration the views of ASEAN leaders.

“The use of lethal force against unarmed civilians is inexcusable under any circumstances. The immediate concern is to step back from a rapidly deteriorating situation,” he said.

In early March, Balakrishnan said, “We have not recognized the military leaders as the government of Myanmar. We do recognize, however, that under the 2008 Constitution, it provides for a special role for the military as an institution in the body politic of Myanmar.”

ASEAN has been strongly criticized in the past for its position on and relationship with Myanmar, in particular for its policies of non-interference and “constructive engagement”.

However, when Myanmar was struck by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 – the worst-recorded natural disaster in Myanmar history – ASEAN took a bold step by proactively assuming a leadership role and convincing the Myanmar government to cooperate with the international community.

Looking at the current conflict, diplomats inside and outside Myanmar said that there is no entry point to mediate so far. But many said that the killings and atrocities can’t last forever and must stop soon.


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