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The Rift Between ASEAN and Myanmar’s Democracy Movement is Growing Wider

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The Rift Between ASEAN and Myanmar’s Democracy Movement is Growing Wider

Recent statements from senior Southeast Asian officials have demonstrated a lack of understanding of the country’s conflict dynamics.

The Rift Between ASEAN and Myanmar’s Democracy Movement is Growing Wider

Myanmar’s empty seat during the 40th ASEAN Summit (Plenary Session) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 11, 2022.

Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Kusuma Pandu Wijaya

As the latest Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit drew to a close on Sunday, you could almost hear a collective sigh of exasperation from across Myanmar. Another opportunity for action has been effectively squandered as ASEAN leaders fell back on its lackluster Five-Point Consensus (which calls for dialogue on “all sides”) to deal with Myanmar’s escalating political crisis. Despite once again banning junta leader Min Aung Hlaing from attending the summit, held this time in Phnom Penh, the regional bloc looks no closer to understanding Myanmar’s conflict, let alone solving it.

Recent weeks have been littered with misjudged comments from ASEAN leaders that sum up the bloc’s failures in Myanmar. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan started the month by declaring that Myanmar’s conflict “is not just a replay of the ethnic armed conflict” but “a fight for the heart of the Bamar majority, between the Tatmadaw on one hand and the National League for Democracy [NLD] led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.” On the same day, former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa affirmed that Myanmar’s junta “must be part of ASEAN dialogue.”

Both remarks demonstrate the limited understanding of Myanmar’s politics and resistance among the leaders of its fellow ASEAN countries. Framing Myanmar’s crisis as a battle between Bamars, or specifically, the NLD and the army is a popular narrative among military supporters and scholars, which serves to create a wedge between the majority ethnic group and minority populations beset with decades of distinct but interrelated grievances toward the military. Min Aung Hlaing is currently seeking to entice the country’s many ethnic political parties to take part in bilateral ceasefire deals and back his fraudulent election plans in a calculated effort to exploit differences and pit communities against one another.

While this tactic has enjoyed some success, with both the United Wa State Party and the National Democratic Alliance Army making progress on bespoke deals recently, it does not reflect the reality in most parts of Myanmar. According to latest analysis by the United States Institute of Peace, there are roughly 65,000 People’s Defense Force (PDF) troops as of October, consisting of around 300 PDF battalions with 200-500 troops each. These are not only active in Bamar-majority areas, but also across Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Karenni states, where all of them are actively engaged in fighting the military. There are also People Defense Teams and Local Defense Forces in various states and regions, locally formed militias operating autonomously to protect their communities.

Ethnic resistance groups, such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), and Karenni Army (KA), are playing active roles in recruiting and training PDFs in northern and eastern Myanmar. This shows the resistance movement in Myanmar is much more than a binary fight between Bamar-majority NLD supporters and the military. It is disappointing and damaging for representatives of ASEAN, who are seen by the international community as closer to Myanmar, to get it so wrong.

Balakrishnan added that Myanmar’s military has a very high tolerance for pain and isolation and therefore that the crisis will take decades to resolve. This may seem true on the face of it but may also become a self-fulfilling prophesy as a result of inaction. It echoes the narrative presented by some Western analysts right after the coup, and that appears to shape some Western foreign policy too, that the military will ultimately prevail.

As a significant source of investment, ASEAN could have substantially more leverage over Myanmar than all Western countries combined if it actually wanted to step up pressure on the country’s military. However, the bloc is even more reluctant to use its economic leverage over Myanmar, let alone seriously challenge Min Aung Hlaing and the army through sanctions. The Five-Point Consensus presented by ASEAN makes clear the military will be a part of Myanmar’s future. Back in February, the current ASEAN chair, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, said the power of the military is “enshrined in their constitution.”

Yet as we count down to the second anniversary of the coup, ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus has achieved nothing. According to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Consensus “has become a pretext” for Western governments to delay tougher action on Myanmar under the guise of waiting for ASEAN leadership. Balakrishnan’s statement is only likely to further distance the ASEAN leadership from the democracy movement in Myanmar. His comments drew surprise, if not outrage, among people from different ethnic backgrounds who are laying down their lives to fight the military across the country. It is clear to most Myanmar people that this is not a fight between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (the NLD) and Min Aung Hlaing (the army); it is a fight between the general population of Myanmar and the military.

At this point, it is clear that despite its weak posturing (such as vague talk of the need for “timelines” for peace from Myanmar), ASEAN will consider the military a part of Myanmar’s future however many atrocities it commits. Recently, the local organization Justice for Myanmar published a statement criticizing ASEAN’s role in actively aiding and abetting Myanmar’s military by putting Air Force commander Gen. Tun Aung in charge of the ASEAN Air Chiefs Conference.

Natalegawa’s commentary is further testimony to this. His view is not only an insult to the people of Myanmar, but makes ASEAN look weak and ineffectual. Min Aung Hlaing has openly flouted ASEAN’s peace plan, affirmed his right to rule Myanmar through the 2008 Constitution, and accused “some” countries of interference. All the while, his State Administration Council (SAC) has continued to escalate atrocities against civilians, which included its deadliest single airstrike yet in northern Myanmar last month.

For the ASEAN leadership to still speak about the military’s role in resolving the crisis it is responsible for creating and aggravating is simply breathtaking. There is no negotiated solution to Myanmar’s crisis that could be palatable to the exiled National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG), the country’s ethnic resistance groups and the SAC. By desperately clinging to the Five-Point Consensus in the face of verifiable and empirical facts, ASEAN has written itself off as detached from reality and increasingly irrelevant.

Token gestures, such as weak statements and rescinded invitations, are far from sufficient. A key test will be whether ASEAN comes out in support of the military’s sham elections planned for next year. But ultimately, ASEAN will have to tear up its strategy in favor of a clearly benchmarked approach, backed by economic consequences and sanctions for Myanmar’s generals. Anything less will only benefit the military.