Cambodia, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has condemned in unusually strong language Myanmar’s execution of four political prisoners, signaling a possible shift in the bloc’s approach toward its problem member.
In a statement issued today, Cambodia’s government said that ASEAN was “extremely troubled and deeply saddened” to hear that the junta had carried out the executions, despite a personal appeal by Prime Minister Hun Sen to reconsider the sentences. It added, “This is an issue that ASEAN takes seriously.”
Yesterday, Myanmar’s military junta announced that it had executed four democracy activists that it accused of aiding “terror acts” against the military administration that seized power last February. The four were Phyo Zeyar Thaw, a hip-hop artist-cum-lawmaker for the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD), the veteran pro-democracy activist Ko Jimmy, and Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, two other men involved in the anti-junta resistance.
The ASEAN Chairman’s statement came amid a battery of condemnatory statements from foreign governments, civil society organizations, and human rights groups following the executions, the first to take place in Myanmar since the late 1980s.
The executions were announced by the junta last month, after the men’s appeals were rejected. In a subsequent letter to Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing last month, Hun Sen urged the military administration not to carry out the death sentences, arguing that the move would further isolate the junta and complicate the pursuit of a resolution to the conflict that has engulfed Myanmar since the military coup of February 2021.
The ASEAN Chairman’s statement said that in addition to ignoring Hun Sen’s appeal, the timing of the death sentences – just a week before the 55th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting that Cambodia is hosting in Phnom Penh – was “highly reprehensible” and was a sign of the junta’s “gross lack of will” to support the implantation of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus peace plan. Approved in April 2021, the Five-Point Consensus called for an immediate cessation of violence and the opening of inclusive political talks involving “all parties” to the country’s dispute.
“We strongly and urgently call on all parties concerned to desist taking actions that would only further aggravate the crisis, hinder peaceful dialogue among all parties concerned, and endanger peace , security, and stability, not only in Myanmar, but the whole region,” the ASEAN Chairman’s statement concluded.
The executions were the latest and most glaring signal that the military junta, while agreeing to the terms of the Five-Point Consensus, has never shown much interest in implementing ASEAN’s plan or engaging in good faith dialogue with its principal opponents. ASEAN’s consensus-based approach to the country’s crisis has not only failed to make inroads, but has been treated essentially with contempt by the military junta.
This contempt for ASEAN’s process has the potential to shock the bloc into a reassessment of its approach. Now that the superlatives have been expended, the question arises as to whether there will be any substantive change to ASEAN’s policy toward Myanmar. (The bloc’s statement of re-commitment to the Five-Point Consensus, which by its very nature relies on the junta’s goodwill, offers reasons to be skeptical of a sudden change in the bloc’s approach.)
In truth, the same question can also be asked of other outside governments – particularly those that have been most openly critical of the terrors unleashed by the military junta.
The executions have been accompanied by a growing cynicism among Myanmar social media users about the international professions of concern and anguish that have followed each of the junta’s escalatory actions. In the nearly 18 months since the coup, these modular statements of outrage and concern have acquired a sort of ritualistic quality, given that they have yet to lead to any substantial support for the resistance struggle. “Here’s a Twitter drinking game,” one user posted on the social media network. “Take a shot every time you see a tweet that says ‘condemn’, ‘saddened’, ‘troubled’ about the situation in #Myanmar.”
There are already some signs that Western governments are preparing to tighten their positions toward the military junta. The U.S. government has said that there can be no “business as usual” following the executions, and that “all options are on the table,” including economic measures to cut off the military’s main sources of revenues. (One of these may be to sanction the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, a key source of income for the junta.) Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has similarly announced that further sanctions against the junta are “under active consideration.”
Whether the expected ratcheting up of pressure will be accompanied by positive steps to support the resistance is less clear, given the dangers of Myanmar becoming a proxy war between China and the West. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Myanmar’s military administration has taken a further step toward a bleak new era of isolation – and the domestic political aftershocks of this move may only just be beginning.