• header EFSAS

EFSAS Commentary

ASEAN’s nudge that led the Myanmar junta to release protestors holds lessons for other parts of South Asia


It has been a long time coming, but the positive news that broke out of Myanmar this past week is as heartening as it is welcome. The decision of the Myanmar military junta to release thousands of people it had locked up for months on end just for protesting peacefully against the coup of February this year was, however, not because of any change of heart on the part of the junta. Quite the contrary, it had been forced upon the generals by an unexpected but influential quarter – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – whose highly uncharacteristic and courageous decision to bar junta chief General Min Aung Hlaing from an important regional summit conveyed a strong message that proved decisive in forcing the junta to blink. The ASEAN sent out a clear signal that recalcitrance beyond the acceptable could have the debilitating consequence of Myanmar losing its seat at the ASEAN table. With it would go much of Myanmar’s remaining international standing and prestige, as well as its economic well being. What ASEAN did would clearly have relevance to several countries in South Asia. Adopting a similar template of the international community seeking to correct grossly erring regimes through the groupings or countries that have the maximum influence and leverage over them could certainly yield superior results than merely churning out ineffective threats and sanctions.

In recent months it had begun to seem as though international inertia in taking action against the junta’s excesses had dug in deep, and that the travails of the Burmese had fallen by the wayside in the wake of the Afghan and other challenges. In the period since it forcibly seized control of the country on 1 February, the junta has presided over a brutal, repressive and highly inefficient regime. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an activist group that has tracked arrests and killings since the coup, security forces have killed close to 1,200 people, mainly pro-democracy activists and protestors and supporters of the incarcerated Aung San Suu Kyi, the most prominent face of democracy in the country. More than 9000 activists have been arrested. Confronted with a sense of hopelessness that the atrocities by the military have engendered, the nature of the protest movement has changed character in recent months.

While in the first few weeks after the coup millions of people took to the streets in virtually every city, town and major village across the country and voiced their strong opposition to the coup, now new rebel forces, known as People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), are militarily battling the Tatmadaw, as the military is known in Myanmar, in Sagaing, Mandalay and Magwe regions and the Chin and Kayah states. Anti-junta forces are also increasingly detonating bombs on military and military-affiliated targets in urban areas, and assassinating junta-aligned officials and their suspected informants. In response, the Tatmadaw has resorted to shooting indiscriminately into villages from helicopters and with heavy artillery, looting homes at random, killing civilians for no apparent reason, and burning property such as motorcycles, cars and livestock. Myanmar’s many long-running ethnic rebellions have also been revitalized since the coup. In Kachin state, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has gone on the offensive and even expanded its area of operations to northern Sagaing and Mandalay regions, where it is working with local PDFs.  

The decade of tentative democracy in Myanmar prior to the coup had also ushered in useful economic reforms, which now stand abandoned. At a time when the country is being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Bank this month predicted that Myanmar’s economy will contract by at least 18% in 2021. With the coup having taken Myanmar back to its earlier pariah status in the international domain, investments from abroad have all but frozen. The percentage of the population living in poverty is expected to rise to 48.2% by 2022, nearly double the 24.8% recorded in 2017. Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres, told journalists at a daily media briefing in New York that in Myanmar, “conflict, food insecurity, natural disasters and COVID-19” have left some three million women, children and men in urgent need of life-saving assistance and protection. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, meanwhile said that “the catastrophic developments in Myanmar since the coup... are generating clear potential for massive insecurity, with fallout for the wider region. Suffering and violence throughout the country are devastating prospects for sustainable development, and raise the possibility of State failure or a broader civil war”.

It was in this milieu, and after several earlier requests to the junta fell on deaf ears, that ASEAN decided to act. As the author and commentator Bertil Lintner pointed out, ASEAN ignored two of its cardinal principles, non-interference and consensus, for the first time ever when it decided to act against Myanmar. ASEAN had little choice after the junta effectively ignored the five-point consensus that General Min Aung Hlaing had agreed to with his ASEAN partners in Jakarta on 24 April. The five points had included calls for an immediate cessation of violence and the exercise of utmost restraint and a dialogue among all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis in Myanmar. It had also envisaged the appointment of a special envoy by the ASEAN chair to “facilitate mediation in the dialogue process”. The envoy was to be given the right to visit Myanmar and meet with “all parties concerned”. On the ground, neither has violence ceased, nor has dialogue towards finding a peaceful solution been initiated by the junta. In fact, the special envoy appointed by ASEAN, Brunei’s Foreign Minister Erywan Pehin Yusof, was not allowed to meet the deposed and detained President Win Myint and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on the flimsy grounds that they were facing criminal charges in Myanmar courts. The junta’s defiant and uncooperative attitude led ASEAN to “invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to the upcoming Summits” of ASEAN on 26-28 October as “the situation in Myanmar was having an impact on regional security as well as the unity, credibility and centrality of ASEAN as a rules-based organization”. As Aaron Connelly of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies put it, the decision to sideline Min Aung Hlaing represented “the most severe sanction that any ASEAN member State has ever been dealt by the organization”, and it came about due to “anxiety on the part of member States that it would begin to affect ASEAN’s credibility in a broader sense”.

There have been suggestions that external pressure, including from the United States (US) and other Western countries, pushed ASEAN into acting. The junta certainly believes so, as its spokesman blamed “foreign intervention” for ASEAN’s decision. Even if there may, indeed, be some truth to this, the fact remains that ASEAN needs to be commended for taking a decision that may actually have been quite uncomfortable for it. The grouping is itself thin on democratic representation, with the absolute monarchy of Brunei, the communist-ruled one-party States of Vietnam and Laos, and others, as its members. The fact that ASEAN overcame the discomfort and finally took the decision has meant that a total of 5,636 Myanmar nationals who were being detained illegally by the junta for the past several months were finally set free, and images of joyous scenes of tearful but happy family reunions dominated the local media. Within days of the ASEAN decision, Min Aung Hlaing had announced that a total of 5,636 prisoners would be freed to mark the Thadingyut festival of lights.

Myanmar blinked because over the years ASEAN had become a deeply embedded part of its identity. ASEAN was important for Myanmar in every sphere of relations. Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, believes that “The junta seeks three things from the international community: money, weapons and legitimacy. Sustained pressure on all three fronts is the best way the international community can support the people of Myanmar to protect their human rights and save their country. The junta’s actions demonstrate that, despite their statements to the contrary, they are not impervious to pressure”. This pressure was most severe for Myanmar when it came from ASEAN.

As welcome as the release of the detainees is, it is, nevertheless, just one step among the many, including the release of high value prisoners such as Aung San Suu Kyi, that remain to be taken by the junta for it to earn the right to be deserving of any legitimacy. As AAPP put it, now “Action must be taken against those who committed arbitrary arrests and torture. Moreover, the junta must take full responsibility as perpetrators, apologize and institute reparations for those arbitrarily detained and physically and mentally tortured”.

Other than ASEAN, the junta had the most faith in China, which it believed would bail it out politically and economically in the event that things went south. That Myanmar chose to bow so readily to ASEAN would suggest that China did not live up to the promise that Myanmar believed it had. Lintner was of the view that “China is playing a double game to hedge its bets. While Beijing recently supplied US$6 million in aid to the ruling junta, known as the State Administration Council (SAC), in Naypyitaw, it has also reaffirmed Chinese Communist Party ‘party-to-party relations’ with the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who led the now military-toppled government”. Last month, instead of pushing the junta’s case strongly, China agreed to a deal with the US at the UN to delay which government – the coup-installed government or the National Unity Government (NUG) comprised of ousted politicians – should represent Myanmar.

The recent developments in Myanmar are a good pointer for democratically inclined nations on how to get other roguish, disruptive regimes to adhere to global norms and propriety. In Afghanistan, another country the international community is grappling with, for example, the terrorist Taliban regime is deeply beholden to Pakistan. The Pakistani Foreign Minister and the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were in Kabul just yesterday, hobnobbing with the top Taliban leadership. Pakistan has been an ardent supporter of international engagement with the Taliban. Surely Pakistan possesses the ability to get the Taliban to change enough for it to become possible for the rest of the world to engage with it. It is about time that Pakistan is compelled to get the Taliban to ascertain and accept the will of the people of Afghanistan and to ensure acceptable standards of human rights across the country.

The international community, especially the US, has enough leverage over cash-strapped, near-bankrupt Pakistan to make it fall in line. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) just this week decided to retain Pakistan on its grey list, and Pakistan’s widespread support of terrorism is no longer a secret at all. The Myanmar example has made it clear that China should not be relied upon to bail Pakistan, or indeed Afghanistan, out of its deep financial crisis. After promising the moon to the Taliban in the initial days of the regime, China has chosen to quietly slip into oblivion once it became clear to it that actually engaging with the Taliban the way it wanted to would not only be unnervingly difficult, but would also be extremely costly. As with Myanmar, Afghanistan presents another excellent opportunity to the international community to show China off for what it is – an unreliable, fair weather friend and an exploitative power that seeks out vulnerable nations. As for Pakistan, if it pleads with the West and with international institutions for funds, as it regularly does, it needs to be asked to first deliver on Afghanistan.

Serious pressure needs to be brought to bear on the many chinks in its armor to ensure that Pakistan, because of the overwhelming clout it has over the Taliban, plays an even stronger role with the terrorist rulers of Afghanistan than ASEAN did with the military junta in Myanmar.