Myanmar coup and ASEAN foreign ministers’ meetingWhat are the conditions that may propel the Myanmar military to open its door to Asean and bring stability back to its poorest member.
Situation on the Ground: Myanmar has witnessed up to now 27 days of unprecedented protests nationwide against the February 1 military coup. The demonstration is very different from those which took place in 1998, 2007, 2011 with participation by the National League for Democracy Party’s sympathisers, the 1980s generation, civil servants and young people who made most of the protesters under Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). The military and its police arm are stepping up their crackdowns with a total of 30 deaths and high casualties (around 20 casualties) reported on February 28. More than 2,000 people are imprisoned, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, although a significant amount of those arrested were later released.
Pandemic: Myanmar was already in a crisis because of the long-year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Johns Hopkins University reported 142,000 pandemic cases in Myanmar with 3,199 deaths. Some 131,000 cases have recovered. But the real pandemic figures are likely to be much higher due to a lack of testing facilities. The coup has also temporarily suspended Myanmar’s efforts to source vaccines. Some limited initial supply had come from India.
Economy: Already in a crisis because of the pandemic but now on the brink of a collapse as many working people and civil servants are going on strikes. Many manufacturing and services have run out of supplies and working staff. There have been occasional bank runs and the central bank has issued an order to limit the amount of cash withdrawal which a depositor can make.
Communication: There is still an internet shutdown nightly from 1am to 9am when most arrests were made. There is no access to news on TV channels. Facebook, the main source of news, is accessible via VPN only. Facebook had also shut down military-linked pages and has stopped advertising for military affiliated businesses. The press is subject to self-censorship and were ordered by the military not to refer to them as “coup government” but to refer to them as State Adm Council. Twenty-two reporters have been arrested largely during the protests.
Government: The military coup on February 1, followed by an unexpected series of nationwide uprisings by the Myanmar people against the military regime has delayed international recognition of the State Administration Council headed by General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. The National League for Democracy Members of Parliament who won the last election with a landslide have formed the so- called “Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw”. The Committee is trying to set up a legitimate government even if it has to be an exile one. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and many of the party’s senior members are still under arrest.
Military objectives: Following the coup, the military has announced a Cabinet list of well-recognised personalities acceptable to the international community especially in the economic sphere. It justified the coup by accusing the Union Election Commission of fraud involving some 10.5 million voters. It pledged to hold an election after one year.
Diplomacy: Major superpowers under the UN Security Council had called on the military junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi. The United States, European Union and several others have imposed limited sanctions. They, including China, have thrown their lots, at least publicly, on ASEAN to take an initiative to find solutions to the Myanmar crisis which is no longer a domestic affair but has wider regional implications. Why ASEAN? Probably because it doesn’t have the moral high ground which sounds good but not achievable. And perhaps, most important, ASEAN doesn’t treat Myanmar as a pariah like western nations.
ASEAN: Despite reservations FROM some members who saw the coup as “purely a domestic affair”, it was able to issue a joint statement that gives importance to the principles of ASEAN Charter on democracy, the rule of law, constitution government and right etc. The March 2 meeting of the foreign ministers may prove to be another watershed in the history of the organisation as it tries to balance the Charter principles and the principle “non-interference”. The March 2 meeting agenda will seek consensus on vaccine access for members, managing trade corridors affected by the pandemic and discussion on the Myanmar situation.
Indonesia: The country has taken the lead to discuss ways to return Myanmar to normalcy according to the will of the Myanmar people. Led by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, it sees Myanmar as part of the family in the Asean clan and any “constructive engagement” can be made to bring solutions to the crisis. Indonesia hopes that the Mar 2 meeting is an avenue to send a message to Naypyitaw that ASEAN is concerned with the safety and well-being of the Myanmar people, and to listen to how Myanmar can insure that and to bring democracy back. Last, but not least how Asean can assist Myanmar.
Mission: But there are challenges because any solution will require engagement with all stakeholders while the military and NLD will both insisted being either them of them being recognised. But Asean especially Indonesia doesn’t want to be caught in the middle but rather see that any workable solution will first require the military and NLD to talk to one another directly or via a third party. Both Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi are seen as part of the solutions. It hopes that Myanmar will open its door for ASEAN to assist any way it wants. For example, it could deploy the ASEAN ad hoc committee on Rakhine to fulfil the assignment.
Wayout: Myanmar military’s blueprint over the past 60 years has been to uphold national unity especially in lieu of ethnic minorities seeking independence. But it came with a great cost to its people. The military knew this and staged a democratic transition under President Thein Sein who oversaw the path to hybrid democracy won by NLD in 2016. The military hoped to return to that path again with the February 1 coup but the world around it had changed much, not least its own people.