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ASEAN’s Defective Approach to the Crisis in Myanmar

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ASEAN’s Defective Approach to the Crisis in Myanmar

The bloc’s response to the bombing in Kanbalu has laid bare its impotence and poor understanding of the country’s conflict.

ASEAN’s Defective Approach to the Crisis in Myanmar

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

Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Kusuma Pandu Wijaya

On the morning of April 11, the first day of Myanmar’s New Year celebrations, the Myanmar air force dropped over 1,500 kilograms of ordnance designed to devastate and incinerate the small peaceful village of Pazigyi in Kanbalu township, Sagaing Region. The attacks targeted a New Year celebration packed with women and young children. Footage of the resulting bloodshed that was circulated on social media showed the true horror of the scene.

At the time of writing, the death toll stands at 168, although unofficial reports from the ground indicate that the destruction was so extreme, and that victims’ bodies were so horrifically mangled, dismembered, and scorched, that emergency crews have resorted to counting any collection of two legs and two arms as one victim. The military returned later in the day, striking the village again with rockets and cannon fire aimed to kill villagers who were extracting victims or battling the flames.

The barbaric conduct of the Myanmar military must receive an unequivocal condemnation from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has a moral duty to lead the charge in ending these blatant war crimes. However, the ASEAN response, which came two days later, referred to “reported” air-strikes and “dozens” of civilian deaths when the death toll had already been confirmed as exceeding 100, making this the deadliest confirmed attack on civilians since the February 2021 coup.

The statement made no mention of the military’s despicable targeting of a civilian cultural event, nor the inhumane and criminal act of bombing the village a second time. True to its form since the formulation of the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) peace plan in April 2021, ASEAN called for a general end to violence and condemned the attacks as a matter of course without calling for the military to be tried for war crimes, for financial sanctions or munitions embargoes to be placed on the military, or for ASEAN to take any concrete action in Myanmar whatsoever. To pour salt into the wound, that same day, ASEAN’s secretary general met with the representatives of the military junta, supposedly to discuss the 5PC and humanitarian aid.

The response laid bare ASEAN’s defective approach to Myanmar crisis.

ASEAN must accept this simple fact that the military can never be a party to a solution in Myanmar. The military has made a mockery of the organization by pretending to accept the 5PC internationally while simultaneously announcing in domestic media that it would only countenance the implementation of the 5PC once it had effective control of the country – at which point the five points would naturally no longer be relevant. The military has also stated in no uncertain terms that it will not recognize or be party to any negotiations with the National Unity Government (NUG), by far the largest opposition body, which is in undeniable control of large swathes of the country. Furthermore, when ASEAN’s envoys came to Myanmar to inspect the state of the crisis and to find evidence that the military has at least made efforts to comply with the requirements set forth by ASEAN, the military denied and misled the envoys.

At the same time, foreign states are bowing to the junta and sending aid in coordination and cooperation with the military, which notionally receives, transports, and distributes all such aid but in reality simply steals these shipments or sells them to raise funds for their war efforts. In a Kafkaesque twist, these governments are essentially funneling foreign taxpayers’ money to the military junta, which is the very reason that aid is needed in the first place.

The war is now in its third year, with no end in sight, and the military has increased its budget by 50 percent, yet those in ASEAN who advocate for justice, democracy, and genuine action are drowned out in a sea of equivocations, deflections, and meek excuses. The ASEAN statement called for a “conducive environment” to hold a “national dialogue,” even though all people and parties in Myanmar want peace, freedom, and democracy except one: the military. The military is the sole obstacle to peace, and any solution which involves the military can only hope to succeed with external enforcement mechanisms to keep the military in check.

The coup itself is proof of this. Simply put, faced with an enemy as perfidious and barbarous as the Tatmadaw, diplomacy can play no further role. As such, ASEAN must accept that its role as a mediator of dialogue was doomed from the start, and ASEAN’s inaction is stalling the responses of external partners such as the United States, European Union, and Japan, who are looking to ASEAN to take the lead on Myanmar. Neutrality and impartiality are, at this point, no different from outright support for the dictatorship.

So while ASEAN clings to the notion that the 5PC is itself sufficient, the military’s feigned compliance and engagement at high-level talks is nothing more than a ruse designed to both win the military more time to rearm and resupply and also to use ASEAN as a PR prop to internationally legitimize the military leadership. This is a song and dance that ASEAN appears happy to perform. Thailand has gone even further with the Track 1.5 Dialogue, meeting directly with the junta and other major Asian players in March and April to cut ASEAN out and provide the junta a more favorable international platform. Though displeased, current ASEAN chair Indonesia has not called out Thailand for undermining the bloc’s efforts.

None of this should be surprising. ASEAN is reluctant to interfere in members’ internal affairs and it is well known that many in ASEAN want the military to retake control of Myanmar. They have much to gain from a fellow dictatorship in the bloc, and a resource-rich slave state promises lucrative possibilities. But the Myanmar crisis is no longer internal; it is an international crisis, bringing the associated movement of arms, drugs, conflict, refugees, and economic decline to the broader region. Any promise of strategic partnership with the junta is undercut by the reputational damage done to ASEAN if it chooses to stand by as Myanmar burns, showing itself weak and incapable of protecting its own. Furthermore, should the internationally reviled junta prevail and seize absolute control, to rebuild the country and economy, they will have no choice but to turn to China, becoming China’s puppet within ASEAN and a vital Chinese geostrategic toehold in the Indian Ocean.

The ramifications of genuine action on ASEAN’s part are difficult to predict but certainly a dangerous precedent would be set: if ASEAN were to do the right thing today, it may be expected to do the right thing in the future, too. This is an uncomfortable prospect, as ASEAN closets hold more skeletons than most. But stability and prosperity can only be won if ASEAN commits itself to rooting out the military, and actively supporting democratic forces. The organization and its member states must act now, not only to protect Myanmar but also to secure the very future of ASEAN itself.