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Asean has now got its foot in crisis-locked Myanmar's door

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Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing arriving at the Asean leaders' meeting in Jakarta on April 24, 2021, where he justified his Feb 1 coup.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

It's been some time since Asean meetings involved such high stakes. On Saturday (April 24) - some 12 weeks after Myanmar's military seized power from a civilian government - the 10-nation bloc took a first step towards tackling an impasse that threatens to unravel decades of regional progress.

In a relatively small meeting in Jakarta that lasted for about three hours, Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing justified his Feb 1 coup and gave his version of the upheavals in his country since then. He then listened as leaders of other Asean member states implored him to stop the violence, launch a dialogue, and open the country to a special envoy and delegation, as well as humanitarian aid.

He said yes, or at least appeared to do so.

How this plays out will be conditional on many factors. Access to Myanmar has been jealously guarded by the military since it staged the coup on Feb 1. Troops and police officers have shot civilians as well as medics, and shot at medical facilities deemed to be rendering them aid.

This bloody crackdown that has killed over 700 people is taking place amid a Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide boycott that threatens to destroy its economy and leave millions hungry.

An Asean humanitarian mission at this stage would beg many questions: Who would this aid go to? Would this aid go through? Would the envoy be allowed to speak to ousted lawmakers, many of whom have outstanding arrest warrants?

But the summit was never about these details anyway. Its objective was simply to get Asean's foot in the door until conditions become ripe enough for the bloc to facilitate a resolution, say analysts.

Gen Min Aung Hlaing, backed by a 400,000 strong military and vast enterprises with tendrils in key sectors of Myanmar's economy, is squaring off against ousted lawmakers and their allies who have regrouped under the National Unity Government (NUG).

Neither side is in the mood to negotiate. Both have declared the other illegal. NUG even asked Interpol to arrest the general in Jakarta so that he could be tried for crimes against international law.

Asean, meanwhile, is constrained not just by its policy of non-interference and consensus-style decision making, but also the different political priorities of member states.

The leader of a country which arguably holds the biggest sway in Myanmar's crisis - Thailand - chose to sit out of the meeting, as did Philippines' and Laos'. While Thai premier Prayut Chan-o-cha - himself a former army chief who came into power after a coup - attributed the decision to the Covid-19 pandemic, observers think he might have also been trying to avoid being seen as condemning Gen Min Aung Hlaing in an official setting.

Former Thai diplomat and lawmaker Kobsak Chutikul called the special envoy measure "a small step to keep the door ajar".

"At least we will be there when the sides want to look for a way out, if there is a no-win situation and they have fought themselves to a standstill," he said. "That is the most that can be expected."

Having announced its commitments, Asean will now be pressed to deliver.

Mr Jason Tower, Myanmar country director for the United States Institute of Peace, told The Straits Times: "Asean will face significant pressure from public audiences in Myanmar and across the region if the situation does not begin to improve."

Yet, the current stand-off could last for years. 

Yangon-based political analyst Soe Myint Aung told The Straits Times: "The NUG may also be sustainable for many more years. But if it is not really in a position to run the country and control the civil service and public administration, the NUG would very quickly lose its coherence and relevancy in a few months' time."

Meanwhile, the junta chief's personal attendance at the summit shows that he is "in a strong position and that he does not take heed of threats from his numerous opponents", said Mr Soe Myint Aung.

"Paradoxically, it also exhibits that the present military administration is not about personalist dictatorship centred on Min Aung Hlaing, but about the institutions and competing visions of state-making and nation-building in Myanmar."