Regional Organizations Fall Short as Myanmar Continues to Bleed

By Jayanta Kalita 19 May 2021

The crisis in Myanmar has highlighted, among other issues, the ineffectiveness of regional forums such as ASEAN and BIMSTEC.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, which should have acted with utmost urgency to stop the bloodshed and violence and demand the release of detained civilian leaders, has done too little and too late. There had been a clear lack of unity and unanimity among the member states to condemn the Feb. 1 military coup in the largest Southeast Asian nation.

It took more than two months for the bloc to convene a special summit on Myanmar in late April, but that too courted controversy for not inviting representatives from the ousted National League of Democracy (NLD) government.

With only junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attending from the Myanmar side, the meeting lost much of its relevance even before it began on April 24. As soon as the summit was over, ASEAN leaders claimed some sort of “breakthrough” in their talks.

The much-touted breakthrough was achieved through five-point consensus that called for an immediate cessation of violence with all parties exercising restraint; constructive dialogue among the parties for a peaceful solution in the interests of the people; mediation facilitated by a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair with the assistance of the Secretary-General of ASEAN; humanitarian assistance by ASEAN through the ASEAN Coordinating Center For Humanitarian Assistance; and a visit to Myanmar by the special envoy and delegation to meet all parties concerned.

Sadly, all these lofty proclamations turned out to be a dud. There has been no let-up in the countrywide military crackdown since the junta chief returned from Jakarta. Worse, The Bangkok Post quoted Min Aung Hlaing as saying that he would implement the ASEAN plan when “stability returns.”

Myanmar’s shadow government has already refused to negotiate with the military regime, signaling that it would be against the will of the people. What started as peaceful civil disobedience against the junta regime could soon turn into a full-scale civil war as there are reports of people resorting to armed resistance against the military regime’s crackdown in ethnic regions.

Since the Feb. 1 coup, more than 750 people have been killed by Myanmar military, also known as Tatmadaw, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

More than 3,800 people, including elected leaders, election commissioners, doctors, journalists, writers and protesters and artists, have been detained.

Failure of ASEAN, BIMSTEC?

It seems that forums such as ASEAN and BIMSTEC have washed their hands of Myanmar. For instance, ASEAN whose motto is “one vision, one identity, one community” failed to display any community spirit when one of its family members was in danger. By not acting in time, it has allowed Myanmar’s wounds to fester to such an extent that proper healing might not be easy.

The fact that ASEAN is a divided house on the Myanmar issue is evident to the rest of the world. While members such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore strongly condemned the Tatmadaw’s brutal crackdown on the civilian population, some leaders refrained from making comments purportedly because of the “non-interference” clause in the ASEAN charter.

However, this is not the first time that ASEAN has proved to be a toothless entity. The 1999 East Timor crisis had also exposed the lack of consensus within the bloc when some members backed the United Nations’ efforts to stabilize the situation, while others remained non-committal.

Even the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has been of no use. The 17th meeting of the forum comprising India, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan was held virtually on April 1. But the ongoing bloodbath in Myanmar found no mention in the meeting chaired by Sri Lanka.

Set up June 6, 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration, BIMSTEC emerged as an alternative to the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), after the 2016 summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad was cancelled over Pakistan’s covert support to terrorism.

However, like ASEAN, BIMSTEC suffers from a lack of consensus over critical issues. Its response to the 2017 Rohingya exodus was far from satisfactory, prompting analysts to question its efficacy. Noted strategic analyst and author Bertil Lintner has said in the past that “one should not expect much” from regional forums such as BIMSTEC.

On the Rohingya issue, he had then expressed skepticism whether BIMSTEC as a regional group would make any difference when it came to influencing China in the region.

“This is something BIMSTEC members do not talk about openly but there was a suspicion. However, I don’t think as a group they can do that [though] people from various countries under BIMSTEC umbrella may talk about the issue. But that talk is informal, behind the closed doors. It is not structured, formal,” Lintner was quoted as saying by Indian daily, The Hindu.

The China factor could also apply to ASEAN given that the April 24 consensus on Myanmar had received approval of the United Nations Security Council only after China and Russia gave their nod.

According to the news agency AFP, China and Russia ensured that the UNSC eliminate clauses that said it “once again strongly condemned violence against peaceful protestors” and “reiterated their call on the military to exercise utmost restraint.”

Needless to say, the UNSC has so far issued four statements on Myanmar since the Feb. 1 military coup and all of them were watered down at the behest of China.

(Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi. He writes on issues relating to India’s northeast and its immediate neighborhood. The views expressed are his own.)

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