Diplomacy will be a high-wire act as resistance to military regime hardens in Myanmar
Nearly one month after the coup in Myanmar, commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has a problem: Neighbouring countries are tiptoeing around anything that can be construed as legitimising his regime.
His foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin travelled to Thailand on Wednesday (Feb 24), meeting Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in Bangkok.
The Thai leader later denied the discussion implied endorsement of the junta in Naypyitaw.
Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi, speaking to the media on the same day after a breathless bout of shuttle diplomacy, carefully referred to the Myanmar envoy only by name - not his designation.
This partly is due to the intense, social-media powered scrutiny driven by the people in Myanmar who have risen up against the military's Feb 1 seizure of power.
Apart from hobbling health, banking and rail services as well as threatening fuel supplies with their civil disobedience movement, they have also set up parallel authorities to rival the regime's. They pore over every word uttered online and offline, ready to pounce on any act that confers recognition to the junta.
This hardening resistance has spurred more violence and intimidation. Pro-military mobs attacked anti-coup protesters on Thursday, while police and soldiers lobbed flash bang grenades and fired live rounds in Yangon. At least eight civilians have died so far, and some 700 people detained, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Analysts expect this crisis to escalate without political negotiation.
On the bright side, Dr Sasa, the special envoy for the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) to the United Nations, formed by ousted elected lawmakers in Myanmar, told The Sunday Times on Tuesday (Feb 23) that his ultimate aim was negotiation, and "if necessary, power sharing for some years".
The international community could nudge this process along. But with Western nations quick to slap sanctions on leaders of the junta, the onus on engaging the regime has fallen on regional countries that have reacted to the putsch with more restraint.
But diplomacy will be a high-wire act, with anti-coup protesters watchful of any concession made to the regime.
Ms Retno had a false start. A report - since denied - that Indonesia was trying to get Asean to push the Myanmar junta towards another election caused an outcry among anti-coup protesters. Her informal meeting with Mr Wunna Maung Lwin in Bangkok only heightened their suspicions.
"We have to accept the fact that the age of quiet diplomacy is over in the age of social media," said Dr Noeleen Heyzer, a member of the United Nations Secretary-General's High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation. "Asean's diplomacy needs to reflect this new reality."
The consensus-based bloc, which has long relied on backroom dialogue, now needs a clear social-media savvy strategy that makes sure its messages are heard.
"What people want is actually Asean to be more transparent," she told ST.
Asean is now trying to convene an informal foreign ministers meeting to discuss the Myanmar crisis.
Dr Heyzer said any mechanism for reconciliation would first need to start from inclusive and democratic engagement.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, as chairman of the newly created State Administration Council, has appointed military officers or proxies to a whole swathe of agencies. This includes the election commission, which on Friday (Feb 26) declared as invalid the results of the Nov 8 election which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won resoundingly. The military alleges massive fraud in the election - a claim not backed up by observers.
The junta has reinstated colonial-era laws that were abolished under the NLD. Every household is now required to report any overnight visitor. Every house is subject to searches any time by ward administrators.
But the fast-growing list of Kafkaesque laws have been ignored by people determined not to submit to the junta.
The regime demanded the media stop using the words like "coup government" and "military regime" to describe itself. Some two dozen media organisations declared they would continue using any terms they see fit.
The CRPH on Feb 22 released guidelines for townships, wards and villages to form their own "People's Administrations". Monywa, a northern city with over 300,000 residents, enacted one such body on Friday (Feb 26).
Over at eastern Mutraw district, controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic organisation with its own army, local authorities declared it would not recognise the junta but would cooperate with the CRPH where applicable. All the ethnic groups who signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement are refusing to negotiate with the junta.
KNU foreign affairs chief Padoh Saw Taw Nee told ST that it was even preparing to shelter dissidents from other parts of Myanmar if the junta's crackdown triggers a wave of refugees.
Professor Christina Fink, a Myanmar expert from George Washington University, said trust-building needs to come before negotiations.
"From the (anti-coup) protesters' side, if they see that these people who are going to negotiate on their behalf…are not going to make promises that the movement won't be comfortable with, they will back off and be willing to give them space to negotiate," she told ST.
She added that Singapore and Japan are particularly well-positioned to help foster a resolution because of their extensive investments in Myanmar and connections with both the military and the NLD. China, another big investor just next door, would also be influential if it joined this effort.