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Malaysia shows Asean new options in tackling Myanmar crisis

On May 14, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah met his counterpart Zin Mar Aung from Myanmar's shadow National Unity Government. PHOTO: SAIFUDDIN ABDULLAH/TWITTER

BANGKOK - The South-east Asian response to Myanmar's political crisis broke new ground last week on the sidelines of the United States-Asean Special Summit in Washington DC.

On Saturday (May14), Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah met his counterpart Zin Mar Aung from Myanmar's shadow National Unity Government (NUG). This was their first meeting in person, and a follow-up to a video conference they held in April this year.

Although Datuk Seri Saifuddin described the engagement in Washington as "informal", he shared his photograph with Ms Zin Mar Aung on social media, and even gave reporters a briefing afterwards. It was a bold departure from the conduct of his Asean colleagues since the Myanmar military coup last year.

While the bloc has effectively barred Myanmar's junta leader from its summits, even its most outspoken member states have been coy about their engagements with the NUG and other groups opposing the junta.

In August last year, for example, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan would only say that the Republic "has engaged across the political spectrum in Myanmar".

But Mr Saifuddin told reporters on Saturday: "We can't wait for another year, so we have to be creative." He supported informal talks between Asean and the NUG.

Read Also: How ASEAN's failed 'Five-point consensus' has let down the people of Myanmar

Malaysia, he said, was not in a position to fund the NUG, but Asean countries could offer technical support like training young administrators or volunteers on the ground.

Through the simple act of disclosure, and by considering unorthodox approaches, Malaysia's top diplomat provided the backstop in an Asean that was sliding towards de facto recognition of Myanmar's military regime.

The junta, after all, was allowed to dictate which parties got to attend a May 6 meeting held in Cambodia to discuss Asean humanitarian aid to Myanmar. As a result, the United Nations (UN) special envoy on Myanmar, Dr Noleen Heyzer, was shut out.

Present during the consultative meeting, however, was Mr Ko Ko Hlaing, the junta's minister for international cooperation and head of its task force to facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid.

At the heart of all these backroom manoeuvres is the question of who gets to speak for Myanmar.

Its military, which alleges that the 2020 general elections was fraudulent, pledges to hold fresh elections next year even though it has jailed deposed state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and persecuted key leaders from the winning National League for Democracy party. Outraged young people in Myanmar are waging armed insurgency, through "people's defence forces (PDFs)" which are partly under the control of the NUG.

PDFs have attacked junta informers or administrators. Pro-junta militias have done the same to pro-democracy activists. Myanmar's powerful ethnic armed groups are still weighing the costs of standing on either side.

Myanmar's crisis elides easy labels. The humanitarian situation is critical. Over 566,000 people have been forced to leave their homes since the coup, and some 8,000 civilian properties burnt or destroyed, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Yet dispensing international aid is a delicate affair. While ensuring the safety of aid workers is crucial, giving the regime exclusive control over aid delivery could simply help it subdue Myanmar's population. It serves as a backdoor channel to legitimise the junta.

Cambodia, as Asean chair this year, has an unenviable task of pushing on with the bloc's year-old "five-point consensus" in tackling the Myanmar crisis, which calls for the cessation of violence and constructive dialogue facilitated by the Asean special envoy - on top of the provision of humanitarian aid.

It is no secret that support for this consensus has been waning despite the visit by Asean envoy Prak Sokhonn, who is also Cambodia's foreign minister, to Myanmar in March this year.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights group, over 1,800 people have been killed by the junta since the coup. The junta remains adamant against engaging with key political rivals as well as the NUG, which it regards as a terrorist outfit.

But Mr Saifuddin's actions in Washington have opened a new dimension to the debate. It has put on the table alternative pathways for Asean as it grapples with Myanmar's crisis.