The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), convened for the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits on 26 October 2021 under the Chairmanship of Brunei Darussalam with the theme “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper.” The summits were chaired by His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan, and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam.
The three-day virtual gathering hosted by ASEAN was attended by United States (US) President Joe Biden, as well as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Myanmar No Show At ASEAN Summits
Myanmar, a member state of ASEAN didn't send representatives to the 2021 ASEAN summits in protest to the bloc’s decision to exclude the country’s junta chief and top military leader Min Aung Hlaing. This is thus far a record-breaking move on the part of ASEAN to not invite a leader of a member state to a summit.
Accordingly, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, and some Western powers and entities have actively pushed for the exclusion of Myanmar’s top general Min Aung Hlaing with the backing of the bloc’s current chair, Brunei.
However, ASEAN decided to invite a non-political representative from Myanmar while cold-shouldering military chief Min Aung Hlaing. Brunei, the current chair of ASEAN invited Myanmar’s highest-ranking veteran diplomat, U Chan Aye, as a “non-political” representative, but he didn't attend the meeting.
Hence, the diplomatic standoff between Myanmar and ASEAN.
Moreover, on Tuesday (26 October 2021), Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry explained the country’s decision not to participate in the summits saying it wanted to “show its protest against ASEAN or to boycott ASEAN.” Myanmar also reiterated that it was exercising its rights because it believed ASEAN’s decision to keep its leader away from the summit was against the bloc’s charter.
“Myanmar will continue to constructively cooperate with ASEAN,” he added. Myanmar also insisted that it had cooperated with ASEAN special envoy, Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, but said the envoy cannot meet with Suu Kyi and some other political leaders as they were currently facing criminal charges.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told the summit that the Myanmar crisis is a test of ASEAN's ability to resolve its regional problems. Prayut expressed hopes that Myanmar will trust ASEAN and allow Erywan to meet with all parties concerned as an important first step in solving the crisis.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on the other hand said that he encouraged ASEAN member states to focus on comprehensive recovery assistance and stand with Myanmar to resolve the conflict peacefully while prioritising the welfare of its people. He also called on all parties in Myanmar to engage in constructive dialogue with ASEAN.
Whereas, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told the summit that ASEAN's unprecedented downgrade of Myanmar's participation “was a tough decision but it had to be done.”
By the same token, Brunei, this year’s chair of ASEAN pointed out that, “while respecting the principle of non-interference, we reaffirmed our adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government as well as the need to strike an appropriate balance to the application of ASEAN principles on the situation in Myanmar.
ASEAN reaffirmed that Myanmar remains a member of the ASEAN family and recognised that it needs both time and political space to deal with its many complex challenges. It also reiterated that ASEAN remains committed to supporting Myanmar in its efforts to return to normalcy following the will of the people of Myanmar.
Myanmar, once known as Burma during colonial times, is perhaps the most controversial member state of ASEAN.
What happened on 1 February 2021, where the Tatmadaw or Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup from the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained alongside some senior leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, is without doubt a major setback in the budding and nascent democratisation process taking place in the country.
This political crisis has received international condemnation from the West, as well as from some ASEAN member states, the United Nations (UN), and the European Union (EU). Whereas, other countries like China have called on all parties in Myanmar to exercise restraint, respect the constitution, and uphold “peace and stability”.
The current political turmoil in Myanmar is similar to what transpired during the May 1990 elections in Myanmar when the NLD overwhelmingly won but was harshly suppressed by the “military junta” that was eager to maintain its grip on power since its inception in 1988.
Thus, the May 1990 and November 2020 elections where the NLD won the most seats in parliament and claimed victory with Aung San Suu Kyi at the helm together with the various pro-democracy ethnic nationalities of Myanmar, had similarly suffered the same bleak and despairing fate.
Like “déjà vu,” the current political crisis in Myanmar is like a rerun of its dark history.
Time and again, the military junta (Tatmadaw) has refused to transfer power to a civilian government.
Since time immemorial, the path towards political change, peace, and stability in Myanmar has not been an easy one, nor can change be achieved overnight.
In retrospect, there’s no contention that violence and hostilities must cease, and a sense of normalcy, peace, stability, and national reconciliation must be restored in Myanmar the soonest possible time for the sake of its people, especially in these trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even before the military coup took place in February, the country was already struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme, more or less around 3.4 million people – especially in urban areas will be hungry if the political crisis in Myanmar continues. Likewise, the intensified conflict between Myanmar's military and ethnic armed groups have also ballooned the number of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and refugees crossing borders to seek haven in Myanmar's immediate neighbours like Thailand.
Thus, ASEAN should act in the soonest possible time to bring all concerned parties to the negotiating table before the situation deteriorates further rather than isolating one key player – the Tatmadaw.
Amid the political crisis in Myanmar and the tug of war between the Tatmadaw and the so-called democratic forces of the country, it is but imperative to beg the question if ASEAN will be able to bring back the military junta to the negotiating table after brushing off its top military general. What’s then the way forward to address and respond to the political crisis in Myanmar?
Hindsight And Perspective
To reach a political resolution and address the Myanmar debacle, an inclusive dialogue is necessary, and that would mean involving the military junta in all discussions and negotiations instead of isolating and excluding it. Why? Precisely because the Tatmadaw is a key institution and in possession of state power in Myanmar. That’s the political reality on the ground, and to isolate the Tatmadaw or cut it off would simply lead to nothing but more confrontations.
ASEAN and the world at large should at least tackle the situation using a more flexible and pragmatic approach that would allow open discussion with all forces in Myanmar including the Tatmadaw on any urgent action that its member states can take to de-escalate political tensions and prevent bloodshed. This could help prevent the loss of life and the further deterioration of the economic and political situation in the country.
Furthermore, responding to the Myanmar political crisis would also mean the continuous and consistent process of constructive and pragmatic engagements on the part of ASEAN and the Western world. It would also require some compromises between and among Myanmar’s political stakeholders if national reconciliation and political resolution are to take root.
Likewise, a “winner takes all” approach will hardly work in the political context of Myanmar. Since its inception in 1988, it is but apparent that the military generals are not amenable to giving up power. Thus, to insist on a “winner takes all” approach akin to the clamour of the National League for Democracy (NLD) or otherwise known as the National Unity Government (NUG) – a grouping of NLD figures and civil activists currently in exile or evading capture who say they are the rightful government of Myanmar, will only lead to more bloodbaths between the Tatmadaw and the pro-democratic forces of Myanmar.
The military junta and the NLD or NUG must meet halfway and be more open to compromises if a sense of normalcy and political resolution to the debacle is to be achieved and national reconciliation is to take place in Myanmar.
The most pragmatic way forward is for Myanmar to return to the “status quo ante” – power-sharing between the Tatmadaw and the popular NUG led by Aung San Suu Kyi, then work from within to gradually change the political system, practices, values, and even move for the amendment of the 2008 constitution if possible, facilitating for a charter where the military is under civilian rule, and inclusive nation-building takes precedence.
All this can’t happen overnight, won’t be easy and for the most part, would be painful. There’s no such thing as an easy and fast way or easy path to genuine and meaningful change. Everything goes through a process of ups and downs in achieving change and progress.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The ASEAN Post.