Guest Column

Two New Potential Game-Changers in Myanmar’s Crisis

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 21 December 2022

The bill recently passed by the US Congress, known broadly as the 2022 Burma Act, which allows the US government to provide technical support and non-military assistance to engage with groups opposing the military junta in Naypyitaw, combined with the arrival of incoming ASEAN chair Indonesia, could be a game-changer for the Myanmar crisis, which is soon to enter its third year.

The new catalyst would be increased support of the National Unity Government (NUG), ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the People’s Defense Force (PDF), as well as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), which was set up by ousted legislators.

To date, no Western countries have enacted such a law for such a purpose. It is well known that the US Congress often involves itself in the internal development of other countries by coming up with legislation and sanctions to punish groups or governments that, in their view, are not democratic and oppress their own people.

In the case of Myanmar, it is very clear that the US wanted to help the Myanmar people to obtain democracy so they authorized the provision of so-called “non-lethal” assistance to the groups fighting the military regime in Naypyitaw, namely the NUG, EAOs and PDFs.

From a historical perspective, especially the wars in Southeast Asia, such “non-lethal” aid can sometimes become very lethal. The line is somewhat blurred. It could involve training and providing assistance to improve the recipients’ capacity to mitigate the defensive capacity of hostile forces.

If there is no substantive progress in the coming months, the situation in Myanmar could spin out of control and gradually transform into a mini-proxy war.

The State Administration Council (SAC), the official name of the military junta, plans to hold an election in August. If the SAC proceeds with the poll as planned, the next eight months could be bloody because there is still no political dialogue and no consensus from all stakeholders on what kind of election they would agree to have. Without any prior consultation among conflicting partners, the election and its outcome would be a sham.

In addition, the incoming chair, Indonesia, has a different idea of the ways and means to deal with Myanmar. Fresh from the success of chairing the G20, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who has been hailed as a global leader, may want to keep the focus on Indonesia’s priorities, which comprise multiple crises including food, energy, health, as well as digital transition. Therefore, the Myanmar crisis may not be as high on Jakarta’s agenda as it has been for the past two ASEAN chairmanships.

What kind of role is Indonesia going to take up? After the coup, Brunei Darussalam and the chair’s special envoy, Erywan Yusof, adopted a low and benign profile, pursuing the ASEAN 5-Point Consensus (5PC), albeit with minimal progress.

When the next chair, Cambodia, took over, both Prime Minister Hun Sen and his team were in overdrive mode. Believing his personal experience and good intentions would help usher Myanmar back into the ASEAN embrace and help end the quagmire, Hun Sen personally led the process. In the end, the military junta did not buy into the Cambodian chair’s appeals and proposals.

The incoming ASEAN chair, Indonesia, will be more circumspect but resolute in pressing for the implementation of the 5PC.

As the world’s third-largest democracy, Indonesia wants to contribute to democratization in Myanmar as the new chair can refocus the 5PC from the current trajectory to inclusive political dialogue. At the moment, it seems all the stakeholders are still not in the mood for negotiation as they are thinking they can win this war. The latest US Congress decision might embolden the opposition to intensify fighting to gain more assistance. Indonesia will present the ASEAN agenda under its tutelage at the foreign ministerial retreat later next month.

With a common border of 2,401 km with Myanmar, Thailand has the highest stakes if anything goes wrong. With the continued fighting inside Myanmar, more and more people are moving away from the northern region towards the South near the Thai border. Indeed, the Thai-Myanmar border is swollen and could burst at any time.

For the past two years, Thailand has been using quiet diplomacy, not silent diplomacy as political pundits have described, to ensure the country’s engagement with all concerned parties both in Naypyitaw and along areas of the border under the control of ethnic armed organizations. Since the coup in 2021, Thailand has wanted to make sure that all the key players in the conflict would be able to hold dialogue. So far, that has not been possible, given the current hostile situation inside Myanmar.

To jump-start an informal long-term process to build trust and confidence among the countries that have a direct or indirect interest in Myanmar’s quagmire, Thailand has invited its colleagues from ASEAN to join a consultative dialogue. The open-ended meeting, scheduled for Thursday, is not an ASEAN meeting. Thailand hopes that in the future, countries which share borders with Myanmar will be invited to exchange views.

All in all, the Myanmar quagmire has entered a new phase, which will become more intense with greater outside support for resistance groups. Thailand is ratcheting up its diplomacy both openly and discreetly in search of an exit strategy because the region has more to lose if the crisis in Myanmar continues.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist covering regional affairs.

This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.