Urgent action on Myanmar is needed but engaging the junta at the Southeast Asian leaders meeting is a risky gamble
There is considerable international pressure for the leaders to reach an agreement on how best to resolve the escalating violence, stemming from the military's ruthless ousting of Myanmar's democratically elected government on February 1 this year. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said ASEAN's role "is more crucial than ever" and urged "regional actors to leverage their influence to prevent further deterioration and, ultimately, find a peaceful way out of this catastrophe."
But an invitation extended to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing -- the junta chief who led the coup -- has sparked outrage among Burmese activists and human rights groups who feel his presence, whether online or in person, would lend legitimacy to the junta's rule.
"ASEAN needs to be careful if it is seen to be legitimating the junta even if it's not its intention," said Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist 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 said Min Aung Hlaing's attendance at the summit would "signal not just to people in Myanmar but also in other countries in Southeast Asia that the ASEAN institution is immoral." She urged ASEAN not to give the junta what it wants: "recognition and a seat with you."
Others have called for the National Unity Government, formed last week by ousted lawmakers and opponents of the coup and which considers itself to be the legitimate government of Myanmar, to be invited to the special summit.
"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," said Charles Santiago, chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and a Malaysian member of parliament.
Inviting the junta but not the National Unity Government is hugely controversial. Many human rights defenders and activists believe ASEAN should disengage with Myanmar's military entirely and only work with representatives of the National Unity Government.
Dr. Sasa, the spokesperson for the National Unity Government, said in an open letter to ASEAN it was "fully prepared" to participate in the summit and warned engagement with Myanmar's military should only occur if the junta stops its killing of civilians and other abuses, its airstrikes in the southeast of the country, releases detainees, and returns power to the elected government.
On Thursday, the National Unity Government sent a letter to INTERPOL calling for the arrest junta leader Min Aung Hlaing ahead of his reported planned trip to the summit.
ASEAN is walking a tightrope
The time for concrete action on Myanmar has never been more urgent as the situation continues to deteriorate, while the country's military leaders have not signaled any intention of backing down.
At least 739 people, including large numbers of children and young people, have been killed by junta-backed security forces since the coup, and at least 4,300 have been detained, according to advocacy group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
There are daily reports of soldiers and police shooting people dead in the streets, of beatings, alleged torture of detainees, enforced disappearances and terrifying nighttime raids on houses.
Meanwhile, the shutdown of WiFi and mobile data has severely restricted the flow of information, with the intention of stopping protesters from communicating and organizing.
The military said it has responded to the protests in a "limited manner" and said the deaths were "not the result of gunfire by security forces," blaming "fake news" for inflating the death toll.
Myanmar risks becoming a failed state if the violence continues, the result of which could be an outpouring of refugees, an increase in cross-border crime, human and drug trafficking and even piracy off its coasts, analysts say, which would be catastrophic for Myanmar and the region as it continues to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic.
ASEAN is therefore walking a tightrope. Engaging with the military could "drive a wedge" between the Myanmar people and the bloc, Chong said. But ending the bloodshed is a priority for any meaningful path forward, and analysts say that would have to involve the military, known as 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 involve 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.
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 said 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 parties involved."
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.
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