Urgent action on Myanmar is needed but engaging the junta at the Southeast Asian leaders meeting is a risky gamble

However an invite reached Gen. Minutes Aung Hlaing — the junta chief who led the coup — has actually triggered outrage amongst Burmese activists and human rights groups who feel his existence, whether online or face to face, would provide authenticity to the junta’s guideline.

“ASEAN needs to be careful if it is seen to be legitimating the junta even if it’s not its intention,” stated Ja Ian Chong, a political researcher from Singapore. “If ASEAN is seen to be siding with the junta, that would probably create more disquiet and unhappiness among all the other groups in Myanmar.”

Leading Myanmar activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi stated Minutes Aung Hlaing’s presence at the top would “signal not just to people in Myanmar but also in other countries in Southeast Asia that the ASEAN institution is immoral.” She prompted ASEAN not to offer the junta what it desires: “recognition and a seat with you.”

Others have actually required the National Unity Federal government, formed recently by ousted legislators and challengers of the coup and which considers itself to be the genuine federal government of Myanmar, to be welcomed to the unique top.

“ASEAN cannot adequately discuss the situation in Myanmar without hearing from and speaking to the National Unity Government. If ASEAN’s purpose really is to strengthen democracy, as stated by its Charter, they must give them a seat at the table,” stated Charles Santiago, chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Being Rights (APHR) and a Malaysian member of parliament.

Myanmar's military is waging war on its citizens. Some say it's time to fight back

Welcoming the junta however not the National Unity Federal government is extremely questionable. Lots of human rights protectors and activists think ASEAN ought to disengage with Myanmar’s military completely and just work with agents of the National Unity Federal Government.

Dr. Sasa, the representative for the National Unity Federal Government, stated in an open letter to ASEAN it was “fully prepared” to take part in the top and alerted engagement with Myanmar’s military must just happen if the junta stops its killing of civilians and other abuses, its airstrikes in the southeast of the nation, launches detainees, and returns power to the chosen federal government.

On Thursday, the National Unity Federal government sent out a letter to INTERPOL requiring the arrest junta leader Minutes Aung Hlaing ahead of his reported prepared journey to the top.

ASEAN is strolling a tightrope

The time for concrete action on Myanmar has actually never ever been more immediate as the scenario continues to degrade, while the nation’s military leaders have actually not indicated any intent of pulling back.
A minimum of 739 individuals, consisting of great deals of kids and youths, have actually been eliminated by junta-backed security forces considering that the coup, and a minimum of 4,300 have actually been apprehended, according to advocacy group the Help Association for Political Prisoners.
There are everyday reports of soldiers and cops shooting individuals dead in the streets, of whippings, declared abuse of detainees, enforced disappearances and scary nighttime raids on homes.

On the other hand, the shutdown of WiFi and mobile information has significantly limited the circulation of info, with the intent of stopping protesters from interacting and arranging.

The armed force stated it has actually reacted to the demonstrations in a “limited manner” and stated the deaths were “not the result of gunfire by security forces,” blaming “fake news” for pumping up the death toll.

Anti-coup protesters hold slogans calling the attention of an ASEAN regional meeting during a rally on April 20, 2021 in Yangon, Myanmar.
Myanmar threats ending up being an unsuccessful state if the violence continues, the outcome of which might be a profusion of refugees, a boost in cross-border criminal offense, human and drug trafficking and even piracy off its coasts, experts state, which would be disastrous for Myanmar and the area as it continues to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic.

ASEAN is for that reason strolling a tightrope. Engaging with the armed force might “drive a wedge” in between the Myanmar individuals and the bloc, Chong stated. However ending the bloodshed is a concern for any significant course forward, and experts state that would need to include the military, called the Tatmadaw.

“I think there’s no way around the crisis without having the Tatmadaw at the table, because they are part of the problem, and therefore they have to be part of the solution,” said Elina Noor, director of Political-Security Affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Engagement, she said, would ultimately be better than isolating the junta as Myanmar has a long history of being an isolated pariah state during decades of military rule.

“They have been through this before and they will withstand, if need be, if they’re isolated again,” Noor said.

There are further implications at play. ASEAN’s credibility could be damaged if it is unsuccessful in bringing about some form of halt on the violence, or is seen as ineffective in handling the looming humanitarian crisis. The bloc has previously acted as a bridge between Southeast Asia and the rest of the international community but its value as an international partner could be in jeopardy if the crisis escalates throughout the region or if it is seen as being too cozy with the junta.

“ASEAN’s ability to somehow manage the crisis in Myanmar is actually quite important,” said Chong. I can imagine how European leaders and especially American leaders (would) want to distance themselves, because they probably don’t want to be seen coddling violent dictators.”

Does ASEAN have any power?

ASEAN is a regional group of ten Southeast Asian member states, from Myanmar in the north to Indonesia in the south. Established on the basic idea that these countries are stronger together by promoting economic growth and regional stability among its members.

If ASEAN were a country, it would be the fifth-largest economy in the world, and it has striven to boost trade between partner nations and allow for the free movement of skilled workers.

However, ASEAN has been plagued by an inability to take action on major issues it faces, such as how to deal with China’s claims and expansion in the South China Sea and its dam-building along the Mekong River that runs through Southeast Asia.

On Myanmar, the group has only managed to issue a weak statement calling on “all parties” in the country to “refrain from instigating further violence.”

Analysts say the bloc could use its combined economic leverage to persuade the junta to change course. Thailand, for example, shares a 2,416 kilometer (1,501 mile) land border with Myanmar and is a major foreign investor. Cross-border trade stood at more than $9 billion in 2019. And Singapore is the largest foreign direct investor in Myanmar. However, both countries have been reluctant to wield that influence.

“It’s important to realize that no one party has enough of a leverage on its own, whether it’s the United States, China, India, or others to pressure the junta by themselves,” said Noor.

Diplomatically, the junta may be more willing to cooperate with ASEAN than other nations or regional blocs, due to its unobtrusive political agenda.

“Because this is handled within the ASEAN family, there’s a bit of trust that we can solve this within our own region within our own group, and not include external parties,” said Evan Laksmana, political scientist and senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta.

A tough task

So what would be the best outcome from Saturday?

Laksmana said Indonesia has put forward a humanitarian pause — a cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian aid and assistance to the country.

Going further, a priority for ASEAN states would include a commitment to facilitate an end to the violence, deliver aid to the country, and start a Myanmar-led dialogue process, he said.

Some analysts have suggested appointing an ASEAN envoy to Myanmar or a task force to go in country, while others have called for punishing Myanmar by suspending its membership from ASEAN.

Meanwhile, human rights groups and activists have called on the bloc to impose an arms embargo, targeted economic sanctions on military leaders and junta-linked businesses, to release political detainees, and restore the country’s democratically elected government. They want ASEAN to demand accountability from Min Aung Hlaing at the summit and show the bloc’s intention that it stands with the elected government, not the junta.

But getting the nine ASEAN states (minus Myanmar) to agree to even minimal action — such as agreeing on a framework to address the crisis — will be a tough task.

Myanmar's military has underestimated the strength, will and bravery of its own people

The extremely diverse bloc is known for a non-intervention policy and its gears grind at a glacial pace — it has taken three months for the members to even hold a meeting on Myanmar.

The states are not beacons of democracy themselves and many are dealing with their own domestic political problems. Thailand, had its own coup in 2014 — the leader of which is now Prime Minister — and recently had to deal with mass pro-democracy protests. Laos is a one party communist state that heavily restricts its citizens’ civil liberties and was ranked 172 out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Vietnam, another ASEAN member state, ranked 175th.

The pandemic has made everything more challenging.

“I don’t think there’s much political will in ASEAN to take on anything that’s more ambitious at this point. Part of it is also particularly unfortunate that all this was happening in the middle of the pandemic. So a lot of the governments are quite distracted,” said Chong.

Still, there are signs some states are determined to put forward a strong front.

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein stated on Twitter that in a phone call with the UN Secretary General he reiterated “Malaysia’s stand that the violence must stop; the political detainees must be released; and an ASEAN rep must be allowed to meet with all celebrations included.”

Ultimately, there is debate as to how much Myanmar’s junta would even listen to ASEAN, though Min Aung Hlaing’s presence at the summit suggests he is keen for regional recognition of his rule. ASEAN then, is embarking on a high stakes gamble where it could risk its already shaky reputation by allowing a ruthless dictator to stonewall attempts to resolve the crisis in Myanmar, while giving him the attention and legitimacy he craves.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.