The Debate | Opinion

What ASEAN Leaders Should Say to the Head of Myanmar’s Junta

At this weekend’s summit, Southeast Asian leaders need to take a firm and principled stance.

What ASEAN Leaders Should Say to the Head of Myanmar’s Junta

The Myanmar parliament building in Naypyidaw.

Credit: Flickr/United Nations Photo

In September 2012, Myanmar’s then President Thein Sein confidently told the U.N. General Assembly that the country’s democratic progress had become “irreversible.”

Almost a decade later, Thein Sein assertion on Myanmar’s democracy having reached a point no return has been proven wrong by Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and his colleagues, who staged a well-planned military coup on February 1 this year. The political, security, and humanitarian crisis that now grips Myanmar is a direct consequence of this reckless takeover by the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known.

ASEAN Leaders are scheduled to meet on April 24 at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta to discuss the crisis in Myanmar. Initiated by Indonesian President Joko Widodo, this will be an unusual event because ASEAN normally does not convene a special leaders’ meeting to discuss specific political crises.

The attendance of Min Aung Hlaing at the summit in Jakarta will likely be protested by civil society groups who strongly condemn the coup and do not want it to gain any legitimacy. The political scientist Professor Amitav Acharya has argued that it would be “a political mistake, not to mention a great shame, for ASEAN to let Myanmar coup leader to attend ASEAN Summit. Better to send an ASEAN mission to Myanmar to talk to all sides, including the military and Suu Kyi before hosting ASEAN-10 Summit.”

The big question, of course, is not just about the meeting itself, but about ASEAN’s broader game plan.

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Several political scenarios are possible. The first option is a principled one: to uphold the validity of the November 2020 general elections, which gave a landslide victory to Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Here, the ideal solution is to allow the formation of a parliament and government, in accordance with the 2020 election results. This would be the democratic solution to the present crisis, and the right thing to do morally and politically.

Yet, realistically speaking, the likelihood of this happening is slim to none. The Tatmadaw generals must have decided that once they crossed the line and staged the coup, they would have no choice but go all the way and absolutely brush aside the outcome of the November 2020 election. Their intent, after all, is not to protect democracy but to forcefully remove Aung San Suu Kyi and her political associates from office in order to forestall the Tatmadaw’s loosening grip on power.

The second scenario is one that the Tatmadaw has been actively promoting since February 1: to hold election within a year or two, after which they will hand over power to the “winner” of such election. This option, however, is morally wrong and politically untenable on so many counts. No one believes that the present Tatmadaw leadership, the executor of the coup, is capable of holding free and fair elections. Moreover, such an election is certain to be opposed and boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi and pro-democracy forces and the ethnic groups. The international community – with very few exceptions – will not endorse an election held under the gun, and invitations to observe such election will be turned down.

A “Tatmadaw election” will certainly not solve the present political crisis, and in fact would create more problems, including more protests and violence, a sharper economic downturn, more ethnic troubles, and a tighter international isolation.

If none of these two scenarios will happen, perhaps a third scenario can be resorted to. That third scenario, however, is still elusive. ASEAN leaders still have not thought this through. Former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa laments that ASEAN is in “need of a script” for Myanmar.

For now, the most promising plan has come from the CRPH, civil society organizations and ethnic groups who have proposed a “Federal Democracy Charter” as the political basis to move forward. The Charter still needs to fill in more details, but it does contain provisions on civilian oversight of the military, transitional arrangements, and greater role for ethnic groups. The international community should respond positively to the Charter as a starting point to rebuild post-coup political order in Myanmar.

What should ASEAN Leaders tell Min Aung Hlaing when they meet in Jakarta on April 24? I can think of a few suggestions.

First, ASEAN leaders should express to Min Aung Hlaing, in unambiguous language and tone, their strong disapproval of the military coup that reversed Myanmar’s democratic consolidation and gave a black eye to ASEAN.

ASEAN leaders should be more candid than their foreign ministers. The ASEAN Informal Ministerial Meeting in early March this year, for example, issued a statement that made no mention of the 2020 election and the coup, no reference to democracy and human rights, and merely called on “all sides” and “all parties” to exercise restraint, ignoring the fact that it is the military who created this crisis and singularly committed gross human right violations.

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Second, ASEAN leaders should make clear to the Senior General that they will engage the interim National Unity Government (NUG), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, that has just been formed. This is one of the demands of hundreds of Southeast Asian civil society groups that recently gathered in a virtual “Regional Town Hall”  organized recently by Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos Horta and myself.

Indeed, the leaders of the interim NUG should be invited to the ASEAN Leaders’ meeting in Jakarta to present their views – even in a separate meeting, even virtually. This would certainly displease Min Aung Hlaing, but that should be the least of ASEAN leaders’ worries.

Third, ASEAN leaders should discourage the Tatmadaw from proceeding with its planned election. Playing along with it would be tantamount to blessing the Tatmadaw’s act of stamping out the legitimate 2020 election. Forcing through such an election would only aggravate the political crisis. Any political solution ahead must involve and be approved by the NUG, including the CRPH, which constitutes the overwhelming majority of seats in parliament, and various ethnic groups.

Fourth, ASEAN Leaders should tell Min Aung Hlaing to stop the criminalization of Aung San Suu Kyi, and drop the framed-up charges pressed against her. Obviously this is the Tatmadaw’s way of banishing Aung San Suu Kyi permanently from Myanmar’s formal political scene, thus weakening the NLD. The last major political figure ousted and arrested for corruption charges was Tatmadaw’s own Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in 2004 – a once-powerful General who also served as military intelligence chief. He was jailed for eight years until 2012, when he received a presidential pardon along with thousands of others. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be allowed to suffer the same fate as Khin Nyunt.

Fifth, while calling on the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners, ASEAN leaders should offer to facilitate an inclusive dialogue between the current power wielders and the pro-democracy forces. This is because both the Tatmadaw and the CRPH are unlikely to come to the negotiating table on their own, and some kind of mediation by external good offices will therefore be helpful.

Finally, condescending as this may sound, it will be useful for ASEAN leaders to read aloud relevant provisions of the ASEAN Charter during the meeting. I strongly suspect that Min Aung Hlaing has not read the ASEAN Charter (have you?), which is legally binding on all ASEAN member states and which Myanmar ratified in 2008.

The relevant provisions to highlight to the general would be Article 1 point 4, which underlines that ASEAN’s purpose is “to ensure that the peoples and member states of ASEAN live in peace .. in a just, democratic and harmonious environment,” and also (point 7) “to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Those fine words are in stark contrast to what has happened on the ground in Myanmar since February this year: over 700 people have been killed including children, more than 3,000 political prisoners arrested, hundreds disappeared, thousands forced to flee their homes, journalists and labor groups subjected to intimidation and the population living in fear.

All this might be added evidence that democracy is indeed in retreat worldwide, including here in Southeast Asia. But that’s all the more reason why ASEAN should stick to and stand by the tenets of its own Charter. ASEAN has no excuse for allowing a fledgling democracy in its own family circle to be simply crushed with impunity, and with its timid acquiescence.

Hence, on April 24, ASEAN must do the right thing, and speak truth to power, especially since that power is in no way legitimate.