New ASEAN Chair Promises Hope for Myanmar
By Athens Zaw Zaw 13 January 2023
On the last day of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 13, 2022, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, ASEAN chair for 2022, handed over the gavel to Indonesia’s President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo as he assumed the ASEAN chair for 2023.
We have heard much noise and argument regarding ASEAN’s handling of the Myanmar crisis prompted by the Myanmar military’s coup on February 1, 2021.
ASEAN approached Myanmar with a narrative of coordination and reconciliation and first came up with the Five-Point Consensus, a peace plan which junta chief Min Aung Hlaing promised to follow.
Key to implementing the plan are negotiations with the ousted leaders of the former National League for Democracy (NLD) government, principally State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But the military regime has failed to do this. Nor did the junta allow ASEAN’s special envoy on Myanmar to meet with Suu Kyi or ousted President Win Myint.
At the same time, the regime has continued to suppress civilians brutally. Civilian casualties were already high before the Five-Point Consensus. They became even higher after the junta agreed to abide by the plan.
Around two million people in Myanmar have fled their homes because of junta attacks and fighting, while about 40,000 homes have been burned down nationwide.
Over 2,700 people have been killed by the junta since the coup. Around 2,000 of them died after the junta chief promised to implement the Five-Point Consensus. So it is clear that the regime has showed a real lack of respect for ASEAN’s agreements.
ASEAN’s struggles with the junta
“We can’t say that ASEAN does not do anything [for the people of Myanmar]. The junta was forced to withdraw from ASEAN meetings. It is a huge success, isn’t it? That has never happened in ASEAN’s history before,” Miemie Winn Byrd, a retired US lieutenant colonel and professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, told The Irrawaddy in a recent interview.
But it is obvious that ASEAN has been too slow to respond to the crisis, as Debbie Stothard, a human rights activist from ALTSEAN-BURMA, a network of human rights and democracy groups in the ASEAN region, told The Irrawaddy.
“ASEAN only met in the third week of April 2021. At first ASEAN made some statements and expressed its disappointment at the coup, but they did not take any strong action,” she said, blaming ASEAN for believing that Min Aung Hlaing would abide by his promises.
“When Min Aung Hlaing said that the post-coup situation would be under control by Thingyan [the Myanmar Water Festival held in mid-April], they [ASEAN] waited until Thingyan 2021. Then they realized that wasn’t the case,” said Stothard.
By the time ASEAN held its first meeting on the Myanmar crisis, its leaders had seen more resistance and protests over the coup and it was clear that the junta couldn’t control the crisis.
“Min Aung Hlaing said ‘yes’ in front of ASEAN [to the Five-Point Consensus], but ‘no’ when he returned to Naypyitaw and the situation was getting worse and worse,” added Stothard.
In her opinion, the Five-Point Consensus is too general, does not have political substance and is only concerned with reducing violence in Myanmar.
Also Brunei, the ASEAN chair in 2021, was at a loss to deal with the situation as it does not have the experience to deal with such crises. Brunei, too, has little interest in Myanmar and its influence in ASEAN is weak.
Cambodia, the 2022 ASEAN chair, had a much better relationship with the Myanmar military but placed too much trust in the junta leader. “Hun Sen thinks that if he goes and talks to Min Aung Hlaing, Min Aung Hlaing will listen to him,” said Stothard, adding that Min Aung Hlaing did not listen to him even when Hun Sen met the junta chief in Naypyitaw.
Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia as a dictator for 37 years and he thought only of negotiating with the military regime as a solution to the crisis. He did not consider meeting the forces opposing the junta.
Democracy and human rights activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi said that the Five-Point Consensus is ASEAN’s greatest achievement as a roadmap for Myanmar. But, in essence, it does not meet the demands of the Myanmar people’s revolution.
“The Five-Point Consensus does not even consider the direction of Myanmar’s revolution. Min Aung Hlaing cold-shouldered the Five-Point Consensus, while the Myanmar people don’t like it very much,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi.
Ultimately, Cambodia surrendered to the junta. Cambodia’s foreign minister Prak Sokhonn, who was ASEAN special envoy on Myanmar in 2022, confessed that he gave up on Myanmar. “I am just a special envoy, I am not Superman ….. I think that even Superman cannot solve the Myanmar problem,” he told the media at the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh on August 6, 2022.
ASEAN and the NUG
With a combined population of over 685 million people, ASEAN is a huge community politically and economically. Thinking about democracy and human rights in ASEAN is much more nuanced than a straightforward black and white situation.
To achieve legitimacy and diplomacy, ASEAN needs to talk to the parallel National Unity Government (NUG). “The most valuable part of the NUG is that it offers legitimacy and diplomacy and handles foreign affairs. This is important,” said Miemie Winn Byrd.
Liaison with ASEAN is mainly carried out by the NUG’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The NUG’s foreign minister Daw Zin Mar Aung met with Malaysia’s foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah in Washington on May 14, 2022. Other NUG ministries have also worked with ASEAN members.
US support for Myanmar
On December 23 last year, US President Joe Biden signed and approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year 2023. The NDAA includes the 2022 Burma Act, which allows for technical and non-lethal support to be given to the NUG. The NDAA demonstrates that supporting revolutionary forces is important for the United States.
“It’s not been easy to achieve, but now the United States recognizes the NUG and the People’s Defense Forces (PDF),” said Miemie Winn Byrd about the passing of the NDAA, adding that it was a huge success for the NUG and ethnic armed organizations.
“Because of the NDAA’s approval, it is clear that the United States supports those who are rebelling against the junta. ASEAN will not be able to do that so blatantly. But they will see the impact of the NDAA,” said NUG human rights minister Aung Myo Min.
Eyes on Indonesia
“Indonesia is a hardliner in ASEAN. They [Indonesia] are tough and, along with Malaysia and Singapore, they think that Min Aung Hlaing disrespects ASEAN,” noted Miemie Winn Byrd.
NUG’s human rights minister Aung Myo Min revealed that he expects more from Indonesia’s chairing of ASEAN in 2023 than Brunei and Cambodia achieved, and to see better decisions on Myanmar made.
“With Indonesia in charge, we must try to bring significant changes to Myanmar,” Aung Myo Min said, since Laos will take over the ASEAN chair in 2024.
“ASEAN’s most prestigious events are its summits. The military council was not invited to represent Myanmar at the summits. That’s pretty much all ASEAN can do right now,” Aung Myo Min said, adding that he thinks that ASEAN is not yet ready to allow the NUG to attend its summits. However, the NUG is working hard to improve its relationship with ASEAN.
Activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi said that the NUG is going to urge ASEAN, along with other Myanmar democracy activists and civil society organizations from ASEAN and across the world, to revise the Five-Point Consensus as it does not meet the needs of Myanmar’s people, and to come up with a better practical road map while Indonesia is chair of ASEAN.
Myanmar’s struggle for democracy is ongoing and given impetus by the loss and sacrifices of the Myanmar people. Having enjoyed civilian government under the NLD, the return of the junta has revived ugly and painful memories of previous military regimes.
The Myanmar military and its leaders are responsible for the current situation. The lives and homes of Myanmar people have been lost in the struggle for justice and democracy. But the dream to build a land of freedom and justice continues and Myanmar expects new action from ASEAN in 2023.
Athens Zaw Zaw is a freelance journalist.