ASEAN, the Southeast Asian regional grouping, is—not for the first time—playing with fire. Its reception of coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Jakarta on Saturday has only emboldened the military regime’s ruthless leadership while enraging the people of Myanmar. The danger is real. ASEAN is rapidly losing what remains of its already weak standing and credibility in the eyes of millions in Southeast Asia and beyond.
The summit on Myanmar ended without any sign of contention between the member nations. A draft statement on the summit that circulated the day before the meeting included a demand for the release of political prisoners as one of its “consensus” points, but that language had all but disappeared from the final statement, which does not contain a firm call for their release. The omission has caused dismay among human rights activists and opponents of the coup in Myanmar and beyond.
The leaders’ five-point consensus calls for: 1) the immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar; 2) constructive dialog among all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people; 3) mediation to be facilitated by an envoy of ASEAN’s chair, with the assistance of the secretary-general; 4) humanitarian assistance provided by ASEAN’s Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre); and 5) a visit by the special envoy and delegation to Myanmar to meet all parties concerned.
In the provision on the cessation of violence, ASEAN said “all parties shall exercise restraint”—ignoring the fact that it is the junta’s security forces who instigated the violence with their brutal crackdowns, and that the Myanmar people continue to be the victims of their crimes. This shows that ASEAN and its ambassadors based in Myanmar are out of touch with the reality on the ground. Or are they merely turning a blind eye, as in the past? In other words, is it just a case of business as usual?
During the closed-door session at the summit, a message from Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) to the secretary general of ASEAN was read out. The NUG was formed by elected representatives, members of the CDM (Civil Disobedience Movement) and members of some ethnic armed organizations. The NUG called for the appointment of an ASEAN envoy who can “focus on engaging all key political stakeholders in the country for the purpose of exploring ways forward.”
Immediately following the summit, the top news story of the Myanmar regime’s media mouthpiece was an account of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s arrival in Jakarta, where he was received by Chief of State Protocol Andy Rachmianto of Indonesia. It also published a photo of the coup leader smiling broadly upon his return to Myanmar.
Given the regime’s desperate desire for legitimacy, ASEAN’s welcome of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to the summit has only compounded the anger felt by Myanmar’s oppressed people.
Some observers argue that in the context of ASEAN’s longstanding tradition of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs, the summit represents a step forward, even if the group stopped short of condemning the junta for killing more than 700 people since its Feb. 1 coup.
But if ASEAN is looking to demonstrate progress, it should go further by condemning the violence and calling for the release of political prisoners and an immediate halt to the torture of detainees and other abuses.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing reportedly responded positively to ASEAN’s watered-down consensus. “He said he heard us, he would take the points in which he considered helpful, he was not opposed to ASEAN playing a constructive role, or an ASEAN delegation visit, or humanitarian assistance. He said they would move forward and engage with ASEAN in a constructive way,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said after the summit, according to a local media report. It should be remembered that Singapore is one of the largest investors in Myanmar—and widely viewed as the chief exploiter of the country’s resources after China.
It is also important to keep in mind that many members of ASEAN are themselves corrupt, authoritarian governments with little credibility when it comes to solving political crises such as the one now engulfing Myanmar. They are partners in crime. Myanmar social media users are well aware of this, and it showed when they rendered their verdict on the summit online, condemning it and cursing ASEAN as a club of clowns.
Indeed, Myanmar’s implosion has only further exposed ASEAN as the pathetic and irrelevant institution it is. This has been cleverly summed up in a new nickname for the grouping created by Myanmar youth and activists in the CDM movement: “pha-sean”, a play on words in the Burmese language. Pha literally means “prostitute”, but it can also mean “cover up” or “shield”. That’s exactly what the meretricious ASEAN, like China, has always done—to provide a protective shield for repressive regimes, past and present.
Beyond its failure to condemn the junta, there is a real concern that the summit’s “consensus” will buy the regime leaders more time. In the past, Myanmar’s notorious military leaders found in ASEAN a refuge; they felt a level of comfort with the grouping, which helped them hide their heinous crimes, human rights violations and corrupt practices.
What’s more, ASEAN’s Myanmar consensus gives the country’s two giant neighbors, China and India, convenient coverage: they can hide behind it and contend that all will be fine if only the “initiative” is given time to succeed.
As for Myanmar itself, the summit changes little. On the ground, the regime continues to implement its brutal crackdown on demonstrations, proceeding with its daily roundup of protesters and continuing to torture them in detention centers. The people, meanwhile, continue to oppose the coup and resist the illegitimate regime.
Since the military staged its coup and grabbed power, Myanmar has been on a steady descent into “failed state” status. This deterioration will have dire consequences for the region—particularly Myanmar’s neighboring countries, not least fellow ASEAN member Thailand.
ASEAN can’t be allowed to further legitimize and embolden the junta. The Myanmar crisis is ASEAN’s crisis. The clock is ticking for both.
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