ASEAN’s Myanmar Headache Changes Hands

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ASEAN’s Myanmar Headache Changes Hands

As the bloc’s chair in 2023, Indonesia will attempt to succeed where both Cambodia and Brunei have failed.

ASEAN’s Myanmar Headache Changes Hands

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen hands over ASEAN’s ceremonial gavel to Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo at the Closing Ceremony of the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits and Related Summits in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 13, 2022.

Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Kusuma Pandu Wijaya

According to Burmese mythology, there was once a wager between two friendly deities: Sakra, king of the Devas, and Arsi, king of the Brahmas. Sakra won and Arsi decapitated himself as agreed prior. Sakra did not want the head but also could not dispose of it. If the head went into the water, all the seas would evaporate. And if it fell to the ground, the earth would burn. Sakra thus deputized seven angels, each to hold the problematic trophy for a year and then pass it on to the next. The Burmese metaphor of the “Brahma’s head” (Bhyamah oo-gaung) is derived from this myth, and is used to refer to a problem that nobody wants but is duty-bound to hold onto.

Post-coup Myanmar has become something of a “Brahma’s head” for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Member states poke and prod for a year during their respective chairmanships, hoping for some progress on the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) peace plan, inevitably shrug their shoulders in dismay, and then pass the burden on. Brunei did so in 2021, as did Cambodia this year. Soon it will be the turn of Indonesia in 2023. Major powers have stayed away from the morass, deflecting the headache back onto ASEAN by emphasizing its centrality and responsibility for dealing with the group’s perennial black sheep.

For all its efforts, ASEAN has few concrete achievements to show for them. When originally announced in April 2021, the 5PC raised premature hopes that Myanmar’s chaotic descent into conflict could be reversed. Almost immediately, however, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing walked back on his commitments and doubled down on the elimination of his opponents by force. Later, the appointment of veteran Singaporean diplomat Noeleen Heyzer as the United Nations secretary general’s special envoy for Myanmar fueled some cautious optimism that ASEAN could maneuver some sort of breakthrough in coordination with the envoy. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar in January of this year also raised chatter of possible shifts. To date, these efforts have fizzled out with cold snubs, heated criticism, and exasperation.

Given Indonesia’s status as ASEAN’s “elder brother,” its own Reformasi journey away from military dictatorship, a decade-long buildup of anger over the Rohingyas’ plight, and President Joko Widodo’s efforts to craft his political legacy, it is certain that Indonesia will ramp up censure and pressure on the junta in 2023. Indonesia has already proposed expanding the ban on junta officials beyond ASEAN summits. Activists are now urging Indonesia to recognize the parallel National Unity Government (NUG), hoping that international recognition will pave the way to substantial military assistance. The shifting language in the recent ASEAN Leaders’ Review and Decision on the 5PC indicates ASEAN taking a more flexible approach as well as a relative hardening against the junta.

Yet it remains to be seen how effective a more outspoken approach will be in actually stopping the bloodletting. Despite the steady stream of punditry and reports stating that the junta is on the verge of collapse, Myanmar’s civil war currently does not have a foregone conclusion.

At this juncture, both the State Administration Council (SAC) junta and the NUG still believe they can militarily defeat the other. Buoyed by their respective echo chambers, both camps claim they are “winning.” Even as civilian casualties mount and the people become increasingly squeezed from all sides, public statements from both camps contain few hints of fatigue or re-evaluation.

Within the Tatmadaw, there is unease not at the brutality but at Min Aung Hlaing’s perceived softness and indecisiveness in stamping out the resistance. Enraged by continuous Tatmadaw atrocities, the resistance insists on an all-out people’s war to not only topple the junta but also completely eradicate the military from Myanmar’s political life.  Meanwhile, as many as 28,000 are dead, over 1 million are displaced, and 15 million need humanitarian assistance.

It will be anathema to the resistance and its supporters, but ASEAN member states’ governments likely believe the junta still has the upper hand and thus will hedge their options accordingly. They will also consider that a wrong reading of the tea leaves could shut ASEAN out from whatever limited role it can play. Worse, it could unintentionally pave the way for China to further undermine ASEAN unity amid growing geopolitical tensions. ASEAN’s threats to recognize the NUG reflect its need to pressure the SAC to honor its commitments rather than any real conviction.

ASEAN also has its hands tied when interacting with the two camps. The grouping approaches engagement as a means to de-escalate, whereas the two camps treat recognition as a leg up that will help them win the conflict. ASEAN tried treating the SAC like an adult, but this has demonstrably failed to achieve anything. But amid all the claims and counterclaims, the obdurate junta remains very capable of inflicting significant pain and suffering on resistance forces who remain uncoordinated and under-armed. And anything short of direct military involvement is unlikely to change the calculus in a timely manner.

The SAC has embraced a bunker mentality and threats of isolation won’t force it to back down. Isolationism was the norm under which senior military officials grew up during the dictatorship of General Ne Win, who rejected joining ASEAN back in 1967. Threatening expulsion from ASEAN could backfire and the junta might happily walk out, leaving ASEAN with no leverage whatsoever. The regular lashing out at statements shows that the junta wants legitimacy via ASEAN but this will always rank below securing its control over the country.

Things are messier on the resistance side. The NUG walks a delicate balancing act appealing for recognition and welcoming developments while voicing disappointment at ASEAN’s inaction. It also has to weigh pushing for international pressure against minimizing the socio-economic fallout of such measures on the populace. Furthermore, it has to shout over a cacophony of more militant voices and controversial influencers who profess affiliation but hawk rhetoric that limits the NUG’s room for maneuver.

As the situation has devolved into a shooting war that the NUG itself claims ownership of and speaks of intensifying, explicit recognition is now less straightforward for foreign governments and groupings than it might otherwise have been. There is also a deep-rooted lack of trust towards ASEAN, as activists have long accused the grouping of shielding the military’s abuses and member states of benefiting from Myanmar’s misfortunes. Even the current statements are seen as self-serving token efforts to salvage ASEAN’s image rather than gestures of genuine solidarity.

That said, ASEAN remains the only viable platform with which the warring parties can be engaged. Talking to only one side of a spiraling civil war – whether the junta or the resistance – serves no purpose. And the overriding emphasis of any interaction with either side should be to de-escalate the violence and facilitate humanitarian assistance. ASEAN’s options should not be trapped into a false dichotomy of just recognizing and talking with only one side. Establishing a proper ASEAN envoy delinked from the current annual rotation would help deliver something more concrete. And even then, it will be a thankless job.

For all the doom and gloom about holding the “Brahma’s head,” there is also hopeful symbolism attached to it. The changing of hands from one bearer to the next is said to mark Thingyan, the Burmese traditional new year when past failures are left behind for a fresh start. And Sakra, unable to bear seeing his friend headless, placed the head of a passing elephant onto Arsi’s body, thereby creating Maha Peinne, the Burmese version of Ganesha – the Hindu god attributed as the remover of obstacles. Perhaps while holding this burden over the coming year, Indonesia could give this “Brahma’s head” a thorough shaking and put some momentum back into the 5PC process.