ASEAN’s Hypocrisy is Fuelling the Crisis in Myanmar

By Igor Blazevic 17 August 2021

To be a credible player in international politics when one talks the talk, one is also supposed to walk the walk. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is talking the talk about its special entitlement to deal with the Myanmar crisis in a situation of deepening post-coup turmoil. However, ASEAN is not walking as it is talking. If one looks more carefully at what ASEAN is actually doing, one sees a very different picture. That is truly tragic, given the magnitude of the crisis, and makes all talk about the need for neutrality, non-interference and facilitation dialogue hypocritical.

Instead of being truly neutral and making a genuine, sincere and, yes, confident and assertive effort to leverage its influence and facilitate dialogue between all key stakeholders in Myanmar, ASEAN is continuing with its creeping recognition of the Myanmar junta. It is doing so at a time when the people of Myanmar are vigorously opposing the military takeover and while the regime is waging a war of terror against the people.

On August 6, Wunna Maung Lwin, the illegitimate military regime’s foreign minister, was present at an online meeting of the ASEAN-European Union (EU) Post-Ministerial Conference. The meeting was chaired by Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and by Singapore’s Foreign Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan.

Borrell made a clear statement about where the EU stands regarding Myanmar by saying that “meaningful political dialogue remains key with all stakeholders including the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the National Unity Government (NUG), ethnic groups and other pro-democracy forces committed to working towards a peaceful resolution of the current crisis”. Borrell added also that “the EU expects the military authorities to release those detained in connection with the coup and to end the violence across the country”.

While Borrell’s statement makes the EU’s position clear, what is not clear is why Wunna Maung Lwin was present at the meeting at all. On what grounds is the representative of a self-appointed ‘government’ allowed to sit in at an EU-ASEAN meeting as if he is the foreign minister of a legitimate, recognized administration?

The Myanmar military does not represent the people of Myanmar. It has overturned the results of a democratic election, deployed a high level of violence and murdered over 900 innocent people, a number that continues to rise. Since its Feb. 1 coup, the junta has unlawfully detained 6,000 civilians and tortured and killed political prisoners. The regime has carried out airstrikes on villages and used heavy weapons in attacks on towns where protests have taken place, resulting in hundreds of thousands of displaced people. In just six months, the junta has plunged Myanmar into economic meltdown and near civil war, raising the stakes of the country becoming a failed state.

EU member states and the EU commission have not recognized the regime as the legitimate government of Myanmar. Neither have ASEAN member states. So why are their representatives sitting at the same table as the representative of a self-appointed ‘government’ that is responsible for atrocities and terror?

I assume Mr Borrell’s response would be that it is not the EU who decides who will be at the table on the ASEAN side; that is up to ASEAN itself. But in future the EU should question and reject the right of ASEAN to break neutrality in the Myanmar crisis and invite only one representative of the Myanmar stakeholders – and the one who is the main source of all problems – to the EU-ASEAN table.

The junta, of course, has used the EU-ASEAN meeting as propaganda, immediately publicising in regime-controlled media that their representative was present and accepted in a dialogue between the EU and ASEAN. And, like the proverbial thief screaming ‘catch the thief’, Wunna Maung Lwin misused the meeting to babble and complain about the democratically-elected and genuinely popular representatives of the CPRH and NUG being a “terrorist group”. That only adds insult to the deep injuries the people of Myanmar have been forced to suffer and endure for the last six months.

ASEAN is supposed to facilitate negotiations between all stakeholders of Myanmar to help solve the crisis caused by the military’s coup. That is what ASEAN agreed to do in its own five-point plan and that is what the international community, including the EU, has fully endorsed and encouraged ASEAN to do.

For many months already, ASEAN has not really done anything meaningful or talked with any of the key stakeholders in the Myanmar crisis.  At the same time, ASEAN has brought a junta representative to attend ASEAN talks with the United States and now the EU. By doing that, ASEAN is legitimizing the junta by stealth at the expense of all the other and much more legitimate Myanmar stakeholders. That is tantamount to siding with the aggressor in the conflict and grave interference in the internal affairs of a neighbouring country.

The EU has important meetings planned for the near future. The next ASEM Summit, organized by Cambodia, will take place online on 25-26 November 2021. An EU-ASEAN Summit is supposed to take place in Brussels next year to commemorate the 45th anniversary of ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations.

Now is the time for the EU to stop playing this hypocritical game of creeping recognition and acceptance of Myanmar’s military regime. The junta is not a government, neither de jure nor de facto. The regime’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has tragically shown how the junta is not governing Myanmar, but merely terrorizing the people of the country.

At the same time, the junta is desperate for international recognition. The EU should do more to avoid playing into the hands of that desire. If it is impossible to avoid being in the same company with anybody related to the military regime – and both the EU and ASEAN have multiple and complex mutual interests – the EU should balance that with prior and public engagement with representatives of the NUG.

If ASEAN’s partners – the EU, US and Canada – are talking the talk of mediation and the facilitation of dialogue, but in reality are walking the walk of siding with a criminal junta, then they should correct and balance those double standards by engaging in “meaningful political dialogue” with all stakeholders, including the NUG and other pro-democracy forces.

Should that result in the regime refusing to attend meetings, then it should not have a place at those summits anyway. It is already clear to everyone in Myanmar that it is the military who are the only stakeholders not committed to working towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis and who are trying to achieve their own final victory over the people by all means and at any cost.

Igor Blazevic is senior adviser with the Prague Civil Society Centre. Between 2011 and 2016 he worked in Myanmar as the head lecturer at the Educational Initiatives program.

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