Myanmar Junta Leader Set to Embark on Regional Diplomatic Offensive

By Larry Jagan 22 April 2021

The leader of Myanmar’s military coup, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is making his first foray abroad later this week to attend a special meeting of ASEAN leaders called to discuss the deteriorating situation in Myanmar. The government spokesman announced on Wednesday that the junta leader will attend the meeting in Jakarta on Saturday in person. His main mission is to try to shore up regional support, according to regional diplomats. But he is also expected to face heavy pressure from his counterparts to change course and ease the situation inside the country.

Amid growing fears of a pending civil war and increasing evidence that the country is rapidly becoming a failed state, international attention is focused on the meeting in the hope that the regional bloc may be able to convince the Myanmar military to stop the bloodshed, release all political prisoners and restore democracy to the country.

In the 12 weeks since the military seized power and annulled the election held last November—which was overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—the security forces have killed nearly 750 unarmed civilians who have dared to defy the junta’s leaders and openly demonstrate their opposition to the coup.  Some 3,500 activists, politicians, doctors—who have been at the forefront of the civil disobedience campaign—journalists and young people have been detained, while more than 1,000 are in hiding with warrants issued for their arrest.

The ASEAN leaders are almost universally backed in their efforts to initiate a form of mediation that may end the violence and start a dialogue aimed and national reconciliation.   In particular, Beijing and the UN are strongly supporting the regional initiative. “China supports the special meeting of ASEAN leaders to jointly discuss an effective approach to de-escalate tension and resolve problems,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry told The Irrawaddy in an email response to a series of questions.

“China will maintain communication and coordination with all parties, and work with ASEAN to step up efforts to facilitate peace talks and exert an all-out effort to stabilize the situation in Myanmar at an early date,” the ministry added.

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday called for leaders across Asia to increase their efforts at finding a peaceful solution to the bloody crisis in Myanmar.

Speaking during a Security Council meeting on cooperation between the UN and regional and sub-regional organizations, he highlighted the relationship with ASEAN, underlining the bloc’s important role in diplomacy, conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

“Today, ASEAN’s role is more crucial than ever as the region faces an urgent crisis in Myanmar,” Guterres said. “I have repeatedly called on the international community to work, collectively and through bilateral channels, to help bring an end to the violence and the repression by the military.”

He also insisted that the UN special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, stood ready to resume dialog with the military and others, “and to contribute to a return of Myanmar to the democratic path, and to peace and stability.”

The envoy arrived in Bangkok nearly two weeks ago as part of her latest efforts to explore potential paths to engage the Myanmar military leaders in dialog. Earlier attempts to visit Myanmar since the coup were rebuffed by the senior generals, after a conversation with the country’s number two, Vice Senior General Soe Win, who is actually in operational command of the security forces. So far Schraner Burgener has spent her compulsory seven days in quarantine and held talks with Thai Foreign Ministry officials.

She is expected to arrive in Jakarta on Thursday to hold talks with ASEAN foreign ministers on the sidelines of the special summit. According to diplomats in Jakarta, she is expected to meet the Brunei, Indonesian and Singaporean foreign ministers. But a request to meet Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is not expected to be accepted. But it is unclear what role the envoy may be able to play in any possible future ASEAN-led mediation—if any. There seems to be resistance within the bloc to having her heavily involved.

China, on the other hand, is keen to explore UN participation in any process that evolves out of the ASEAN meeting—including a role for the envoy. “China hopes that the special envoy of the secretary-general Christine Schraner Burgener will play a constructive role with realistic action,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry official told The Irrawaddy.

“The international community should step up diplomatic efforts and encourage the parties to narrow differences, so as to find a way out, on the basis of respecting Myanmar’s sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity and national unity,” the Chinese ministry added.

The hope is that this Saturday’s special regional meeting may provide some initiatives to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. But despite ASEAN and China’s declared commitment to finding a workable solution to the problems in Myanmar, everything hinges on Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s openness and whether there is any room to maneuver. At a minimum, Southeast Asian diplomats involved in the planning expect this meeting to be the start of a process in which Myanmar’s military leaders commit themselves to engaging with ASEAN in a concerted and imaginative dialog.

So far there are no signs of Myanmar’s willingness to cooperate; in fact quite the opposite. And senior officials involved in organizing the summit are on tenterhooks. It seems certain that the regional leaders are not yet ready to read the riot act to the regime, but rather to listen to the junta’s views, without endorsing them. Several suggested outcomes are still being discussed, according to officials involved.

The top idea seems to be the appointment of an ASEAN envoy, who would lead future contact with the junta and discuss a possible reconciliation roadmap that could lead to a meaningful dialog involving all parties. ASEAN and China have both stressed the need for this. But this can only be successful if the junta first commits to a sincere reduction in the bloodshed—a prerequisite agreed by all interested parties, especially Beijing.

“China is deeply concerned about the violence and bloodshed in Myanmar, which serves no party’s interests and only brings suffering to the Myanmar people,” said the Foreign Ministry.  “We hope relevant sides will put the people’s fundamental interests first, exercise restraint, and prevent the situation from escalating out of control.”

Of course, if the appointment of an envoy is agreed at the forthcoming ASEAN meeting, then the next, more difficult question becomes who that should be. Former Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong has been heavily tipped, but two former foreign ministers—Thailand’s Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai and Indonesia’s Marty Natalegawa—are also potential candidates.

Other suggestions being considered are the formation of a group of “Friends of the ASEAN Chair” to monitor, review and participate in any future dialog process. This would of course involve all ASEAN member countries but could be expanded to involve the key regional “neighbors” China, India, Japan and South Korea. It is understood that Beijing also favors this formula. This would fit in with their national interests, especially excluding the US from the process, according to Asian diplomats.

Other suggestions under consideration are arranging some sort of humanitarian mission, and a possible monitoring mission. Both would be ASEAN-led but with possible UN involvement. And senior Asian diplomats are also pushing hard for the setting up of track-two discussions perhaps mirroring the Friends of the Chair initiative.

Of course, the meeting could agree on several of the options currently under consideration. But whatever emerges from the summit, will necessitate the junta’s agreement. This already has angered the opposition. “The most important thing is that ASEAN doesn’t recognize the military council,” U Moe Zaw Oo, the deputy foreign affairs minister of the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG), told The Irrawaddy.

“If ASEAN wants to help solve the Myanmar situation, they are not going to achieve anything without consulting and negotiating with the legitimate Myanmar government, which is supported by the people and truly represents the country,” he said.

Individually, some countries in ASEAN—especially Indonesia—have already talked to those representing the elected parliamentarians, and at least understand their point of view. China too has had contact with the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a body set up by elected NLD lawmakers that helped formed the NUG. Beijing also maintains regular contact with the ethnic armed groups and is well aware of their aspirations. So Beijing is well placed to understand that any talks about Myanmar’s future need to be inclusive.

“China supports all parties in Myanmar in seeking a political settlement through dialog within the constitutional and legal framework, and the hard-won democratic transition process that suits Myanmar’s national conditions should be constantly advanced,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

But Dr. Sa Sa, the minister for international cooperation in the NUG, believes ASEAN should isolate and punish Myanmar for ignoring their concerns about avoiding bloodshed and not protecting its people.

“ASEAN should not talk to the military—don’t give them credibility, don’t accept them, don’t give these generals any legitimacy,” he told The Irrawaddy in an interview. At the very least, he said, ASEAN should consider suspending Myanmar from the regional grouping, as the regime has not abided by the ASEAN charter.

“We may be a family, but if someone misbehaves, they have to be punished. They can’t be allowed to get away with impunity. More serious action is needed,” he said, appealing to the leaders of the regional bloc. “Likewise, if a family member gets sick, the whole family is affected. All the more, with the region’s heavy interdependence and interconnectivity—economically, socially, culturally and demographically,” he said

If Myanmar is allowed to become a failed state, it will be catastrophic for the region as a whole, he added.

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