History tells us that ASEAN has no integrity, no credibility and, therefore, no authority when it comes to exerting influence on military dictators in Myanmar.
But the past is the past. The upcoming ASEAN summit on Myanmar gives the regional bloc’s leaders an opportunity to display some humanity and political courage in dealing with the country’s new military ruler, who bears primary responsibility for the slaughter of hundreds of innocent citizens, demolishing a fledgling democracy, upending the country’s stability and devastating its once promising economy.
ASEAN leaders are due to meet in Jakarta on Saturday to discuss the crisis stemming from the Myanmar military’s Feb. 1 coup led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The coup leader himself will attend, according to Nikkei Asia, which received confirmation from the junta’s spokesperson.
The regional grouping has never been able to shed the poor record on human rights and democracy that has bedeviled it since its formation in 1967. That history offers little hope of a meaningful outcome from the upcoming summit.
Western countries including the US and world organizations like the UN have put on a show of enthusiastically looking forward to seeing meaningful results from the summit. But their high expectations are at odds with the history of bloc (of which they are well aware) and the political attitudes of its individual member states, most of which are non-democratic.
No one should entertain false hopes, but if the summit is deemed a necessary prelude to further action, we must accept it. The important question then becomes what ASEAN should and should NOT do at the summit.
By now, ASEAN’s leaders are well aware of the actions undertaken by coup leader Min Aung Hlaing since he seized power from Myanmar’s elected government. It’s time for them to stand up for what is right. ASEAN must not repeat its past mistakes by seeking to appease the coup leader and his regime in Myanmar.
Here is a list of “Dos and Don’ts” to help ASEAN leaders avoid falling into the trap of becoming an accomplice of the senior general and getting blood on their hands.
Let’s start with the “Don’ts” (beginning with the very moment they meet the Myanmar military leader.)
- DON’T shake hands with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing. His hands are still soaked with the fresh blood of more than 730 innocent people—including dozens of children—slain by his troops in less than three months. Those pro-democracy fighters’ souls are still restless, because his soldiers and police didn’t allow family members to bury the victims properly, and even destroyed some of their graves, forcing family members to conduct urgent burials in secret. In some cases his troops snatched the bodies from the grieving families and never returned them. Don’t let your hands be stained with the blood that coats Min Aung Hlaing’s hands. (Luckily, COVID protocols may give you the perfect excuse to avoid touching him.)
- DON’T treat Min Aung Hlaing as your counterpart. He is not a legitimate head of government, or even a professional military chief. He is merely a power-hungry coup plotter whose priority is his family’s business interests. He is the chief architect of the overthrow of Myanmar’s democratically elected government, an act that has plunged the country into social and economic chaos, and resulted in the slaughter of many hundreds. To many in Myanmar he is now known as the “murderer-in-chief”, rather than the “commander-in-chief”. To treat him as an equal would be to bring disgrace upon yourself. Even as you sit with him in the conference room in Indonesia, his troops back in Myanmar will be dutifully killing innocent civilians on the streets. He is a criminal who has shown a repeated willingness to engage in mass killings.
- DON’T recognize the military regime. Myanmar’s 54 million people have been almost completely united in rejecting its coup and rule since Feb. 1. On a daily basis, Myanmar people have been sacrificing their lives to oppose the brutal regime, which has been unable to run the country. The regime is indisputably illegitimate; unsurprisingly, not one if the members appointed to the junta’s governing body were elected.
- DON’T listen to Min Aung Haling with your ears; rather, use your instincts. Because the coup leader will lie to you, as he keeps lying to Myanmar and the international community about all of the reasons his regime staged the coup, how the National League for Democracy’s landslide victory in the 2020 election was fraudulent, how his troops have shown restraint against the protesters, and on and on. All that he tells you will be lies. If you trust your instincts, you will be open to the reality of his regime’s brutal oppression and murder of Myanmar’s people.
- DON’T be naïve and cowardly. Press him to return to democracy, release all political detainees right away and respect the results of the 2020 election—the demands the people of Myanmar have been making through their ongoing anti-military dictatorship protests since Feb. 1. You will be the heroes of the Myanmar people, their friends in a time of need, and demonstrate political integrity as leaders of ASEAN.
- DON’T let Min Aung Hlaing use each of you individually or your ASEAN grouping collectively as a shield to protect his regime from accountability for the killings, brutal oppression, looting and other immoral acts it has inflicted against the entire population. Nearly the whole world has turned against him; don’t let yourselves be his savior. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
- DON’T accept the regime’s roadmap, including its promise of an election in two years. That is no solution at all. Myanmar people reject it utterly; they cast their votes from the bottom of their hearts in last year’s election. No elections will be necessary under the military regime. To accept their roadmap is to insult the people of Myanmar and to join the coup leaders in annulling their votes.
- DON’T place your investments—or planned investments—in Myanmar above the aspirations of Myanmar’s people. If you won’t help, DON’T block Myanmar people’s efforts to shape their own destiny and secure a future for themselves.
- DON’T do anything that will discourage the Myanmar people in their life-and-death struggle to uproot the military dictatorship. They are sacrificing their own lives (not yours); they have a right to fight for their freedom and take control of their destiny.
Here are some “Dos”:
- DO see, feel and understand the feelings, determination and sacrifice of the Myanmar people, who no longer want to live under the military dictatorship, which has oppressed them for five of the past seven decades since independence in 1948. Standing up to the coup leader might create a few awkward minutes in the meeting room in Jakarta; put yourself in Myanmar people’s shoes for a few minutes and imagine what they are enduring every day.
- DO recognize the National Unity Government (NUG), formed on April 16 by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. The NUG was formed by a committee of lawmakers who were elected in the 2020 election. It has 100 percent legitimacy as the government of Myanmar. Most people in Myanmar support the NUG. The international community led by the US needs to work with this legitimate government to restore democracy, secure the release of all political detainees, reinstate the results of the 2020 election and oversee the military’s return to the barracks.
- DO realize that coup leader Min Aung Hlaing will ignore any suggestions you have that are not in line with his regime’s stated roadmap, including an election to be held in two years. If you wish to spare ASEAN’s already tarnished record on human rights from being compromised further, insist that he change course immediately, relinquish power right away and restore democracy—even though he won’t.
- DO the right thing and take the steps that are necessary to save Myanmar’s people together with the Western powers and global organizations, including the UN and its Security Council. It’s not a sin to save innocent people from being slain by a murderous general who has been killing his own people in order to maintain his grip on power.
- DO understand that the people of Myanmar will not give up in their determination to uproot the military dictatorship this time, whatever the cost. And by extension, do know that they won’t forgive any accomplices of the junta.
If you allow yourself to “do” any of the DON’Ts listed above, you’ll be helping Min Aung Hlaing and his regime kill more innocent people in Myanmar. If you refrain from the DOs, you are morally corrupt, not only as leaders of ASEAN, but as human beings too.
This is not about the “internal affairs” of one country; it’s about preventing the crime of killing innocent people, destroying a democracy and stealing power in defiance of the will of Myanmar’s people. If these things are allowed to happen in the 21st century, it would disgrace not only ASEAN but the world.
The coup, mass killings and brutal oppression committed by Min Aung Hlaing and his regime since Feb. 1 are a crime against humanity.
You must NOT be accessories to this crime and accomplices of Min Aung Hlaing’s regime. You should help to stop it immediately.
Naing Khit is a commentator on political affairs.
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