April 28, 2021

Asia

MYANMAR: Still at square one, even after ASEAN summit

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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A statement released yesterday, 27 April, by the State Administrative Council (SAC), as the junta calls itself, hedged its cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) following a weekend summit that sought to de-escalate the conflict. It said that it would “give careful consideration” to the “constructive suggestions made by ASEAN leaders when the situation returns to stability in the country.” It added that the ASEAN’s statement would be “positively considered if (ASEAN) would facilitate the implementation” of the junta’s own roadmap. In effect, the SAC will decide when to implement ASEAN’s recommendations, and only if it is able to accomplish its near-term objectives.

The SAC statement came three days after ASEAN’s emergency summit on the Myanmar crisis in Jakarta, where the group released a five-point statement seeking an immediate cessation of hostilities and a start to constructive dialogue between the parties, which would be facilitated by a special envoy of the ASEAN chair (which is currently Brunei Darussalam). The organization also said it would provide humanitarian assistance, while a delegation from the organization would visit to meet with the different parties.

But, as the SAC’s subsequent action showed, there is still a lot of ground between the weekend meeting and any tangible progress in finding a solution to the conflict.

The main reason is that the SAC likely recognizes that consensus within ASEAN on any further action is not assured, even if it were to disregard the group’s entreaties. Yangon’s rejection could eventually result in loss of face for leaders such as Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who pushed strongly for the summit, but this carries for now unformed and unknown consequences, rather than the prospect of deeper economic and political isolation even within ASEAN. After all, while Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore were primarily responsible for the group meeting on the Myanmar crisis, the other larger nations such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand have been less active beyond their statements.

There is a possibility that the junta may attempt to show some concessions in the very near term, to avoid a direct rebuke of ASEAN. For instance, for the first time in more than two months, mobile internet was not cut off Monday night. And the generals may also attempt to allow ASEAN representatives in, but possibly limit their meetings or prevent them from seeing Aung San Suu Kyi. Security forces may even tone down their response and allow some protests to take place. A reduction in the violence would, in fact, be the first main indicator of whether the junta is willing to go beyond paying lip service to ASEAN’s requests.

However, should anti-government protesters again take to the streets in large numbers, then security forces may again react more violently. Both sides are, after all, still far apart on the fundamental issues. The junta continues to insist on its roadmap, while the pro-democracy movement is set on a restoration of the civilian government based on the November 2020 elections. The opposition National Unity Government is digging in even further by promising to pay the salaries of civil servants who join the civil disobedience movement. It also said it will avoid any talks until the regime’s political prisoners are freed.

ASEAN’s summit and the statement were relatively unprecedented, even with the diplomatically phrased demands made on the junta. But unless the organization is able to generate credible pressure on the generals, the Tatmadaw will likely be willing to endure the opprobrium and limited isolation that are the likely result of its willingness to thumb its nose at the organization’s post-summit demands.

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