Why ASEAN, not China nor the West, is the best hope for Myanmar’s double crises in 2022

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A Tatmadaw sign in 2014. Image: Adam Jones via Flikr

A year since the Myanmar military coup, the country’s double crises have continued to linger. Independent global affairs researcher Neville Lai argues that it is ASEAN, with its flexible, and consensus driven, yet informal and collaborate framework that will guide Myanmar out of chaos and not China or Western powers.

The coup d’état in February 2021, in which the Myanmar military, called the Tatmadaw ,ousted the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD), has to date cost over 1,500 lives and the arrest of over 11,000. Meanwhile, the Rohingya Refugee Crisis dated back decades earlier, only came to significant international attention in 2017 after the Tatmadaw’s deadly crackdowns. Throughout the crisis, according to the UNHCR, nearly 890,000 have fled across the border into Bangladesh. Tens of thousands lost their lives.

Both crises were caused by the Tatmadaw’s fatal oppression of dissidents, ethnic minorities, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Under the pandemic, and ruling military’s attempts to cut off the internet and ban VPNs, further atrocities and Myanmar’s dire situation went under-reported.

Although both crises are still ongoing, yet there is mere noise with little coordinated efforts in the international community on the next step forward. In Myanmar — the Tatmadaw remains in strong power under the iron grip of the Senior General — Min Aung Hlaing.

Min Aung Hlaing in 2017. Image: Vadim Savitsky via Wikimedia

At the beginning of the coup, China attempted to distance itself from the Tatmadaw, but as both countries have joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and resumed talks on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, China’s continued engagements and economic investment have de-facto legitimised the regime. China may even have come to terms with the Tatmadaw being the ultimate power-holder in Myanmar.

Indeed, to secure Beijing’s goodwill, the Tatmadaw quickly reorganised the committees spearheading the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and sped up multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects that would give the Chinese direct access to the Indian Ocean and new routes for oil imports. The power project in the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (KPSEZ), as well as other investment projects related to urban housing, would likely be approved and swiftly implemented by the Tatmadaw.

However, Chinese media such as a Global Times editorial in 2021 still recognised the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the deposed Aung San, as a legitimate party in Myanmar. China, however, drew a fine line between NLD and the National Unity Government (NUG), which China saw as a force a uncertainty. The NUG was formed after the coup in April 2021 by ousted politicians, activists, and ethnic minority representatives, as part of the civil disobedience movement to overthrow military rule. While China acknowledged the existence of the NUG, their primary engagement was with the NLD and the Tatdamaw.

Nonetheless, despite some form of engagement between China and the popular NLD, Beijing was well aware of the rising anti-Chinese sentiment during the coup’s early stage. Chinese factories were under siege, the embassy surrounded, and ethnic-Chinese targeted by protesters for China’s backing of the Tatmadaw. While China furiously denied protestors’ claim then, its position has clearly shifted, seeing the overthrow of the Tatmadaw as a force of uncertainty to its lucrative investment.

It would not be in China’s interest to support the restoration of the NLD in Myanmar.

Protestors in front of the Chinese Embassy in Yangon. Image Maung Sun via Wikimedia

On the other hand, the West merely looked on — or really has too much on their plates already — Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and North Korea etc., which were the most recent issues that drew much attention.

They called for the release of the State Counsellor Aung San. But while the Biden administration has repeatedly decried the atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw, his vision of the restoration of democracy may be a step too far from reality.

What Myanmar urgently needs is not democracy, but détente and begin the negotiation process where all parties, including the ethnic groups, could join and discuss the strategies for stopping further violence. Knowing that any strident proposals by the West through the UN Security Council would face opposition from China and Russia, ASEAN can play a leading role in facilitating the mediation of the conflict in the interest of regional stability.

The beauty of the ASEAN framework is often under-rated.

ASEAN champions principles of non-interference, and of consensus-driven, informal dialogues. Designed as a trust-building mechanism, the principle of non-interference provides reassurance and increases the willingness of Myanmar to continue diplomatic mediation rather than turning inward.

The non-interference principle in ASEAN, was highly ambiguous. It was both flexible and rigid. On one hand, by a rigid definition, ASEAN should not interfere in country’s internal affairs; however, it is also implausible to ignore the spill-over effects. Such ambiguity of the coined term allowed flexibility depending on interpretation, leaving more space for international diplomacy. The principle of consensus-driven action allows countries with different values and political systems — democracies such as Indonesia and or non-democracies like Cambodia  — to participate and find possible joint action on issues. Informality allows ongoing conversation for stakeholders with different views to find ways to agreements. A further emphasis on closed-door bilateral meetings and consultations enable disputes to be settled or resolved without resorting to formal legal procedures. This also makes it easier for ASEAN and Myanmar to continue the diplomatic process.

Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) Headquarters in Indonesia. Image: Gunawan Kartapranata via Wikimedia

In April 2021, the association agreed on the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus, a breakthrough of the conflict, and serves as a foundation for target-driven solutions, under the last chairmanship of Brunei.

The census agreed that

  1. An immediate cessation of violence from all parties,
  2. Constructive dialogue with all concerned parties in the interest of Myanmar people,
  3. Designated special envoy to facilitate the mediation,
  4. Humanitarian assistance via the AHA centre,
  5. For the special envoy and delegation to visit Myanmar with all parties concerned.

These terms are target-driven as well as supported by the Biden Administration.’

Last month, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, visited Myanmar and met with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. As the first visit by a head of state to Myanmar since the military takeover, Hung Sen’s trip was a good start. The Tatmadaw now would welcome the participation of the special envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar to join the ceasefire talks with and among the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO). The last few days saw the advancement of allowing the ASEAN envoy access to detained NLD figures. Further constructive dialogue could be optimistically expected.

Despite Cambodia’s recent reproachment to the Tatmadaw, which was conceived by some as an affront to Myanmar’s justice, it was applauded by nearly half of the ASEAN member states, with China and Japan’s backing to this diplomatic initiative. Based on the consensus-driven approach of the ASEAN framework, internal opposite voices within ASEAN, such as from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore etc., could not be ignored — Sun Hen also reassured that ASEAN’s position would not change towards Myanmar’s junta until there is clear progress on the Five-Point Consensus.

Governed by the ASEAN charter, member states’ internal conflicting views, and previous isolation strategy, there is little leeway for Cambodia not to acknowledge the gravity of the Tatmadaw’s actions but maintain a strong stance with room for diplomatic manoeuvre. The next step to it would be determining who or what parties to invite to the negotiation while maintaining an open-to-dialogue approach with the Tatmadaw.

Whilst some criticised Hun Sen himself and his intention, as he is a senior autocratic leader who ruled Cambodia for 36 years after a bloody war. Claiming his intention was to rescue himself from his tarnished international reputation, his friendly relationship with Myanmar may be a plus to induce further cessation of violence, establishing further channels to support Rohingya refugees, the NLD and Myanmar people.

Without this, the Tatmadaw would continue to do what it is best at.

Myanmar has projected that nearly half of its population will fall below the poverty line this year. With its barely functioning public services, the recent exit of international commodity suppliers, such as Woodside Petroleum, Chevron and Total Inc etc., let alone the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, would probably corner the Tatmadaw. But the ultimate losers would be the Myanmar people. Myanmar double crises could be best recuperated via the least heavy weight-lifting solutions — ASEAN is expected to step up in its efforts in leading the mediation.

In 2022, not China nor the West, ASEAN is the best hope for Myanmar deadlocks.