ASEAN in Myanmar's Conundrum: Meddling in Murky Water?

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Laila Afifa

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  • Demonstrators carry improvised protective gear during a protest on the street in Yangon, Myanmar March 1, 2021 in this screengrab obtained from a social media video. Protesters were killed when the police opened fire in the country's largest city Yangon. Yangon Nation/via REUTERS

    Demonstrators carry improvised protective gear during a protest on the street in Yangon, Myanmar March 1, 2021 in this screengrab obtained from a social media video. Protesters were killed when the police opened fire in the country's largest city Yangon. Yangon Nation/via REUTERS

    By:  Linda Yanti Sulistiawati, Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law (APCEL), National University of Singapore, Singapore Assoc Prof of Law, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia.

    Myanmar has been in a tumultuous situation ever since the military junta Tatmadaw took over. On 28 Feb. 2021, 18 people were killed after Myanmar police fired live rounds at protesters around the country, prompting calls for the international community to take action to stop the repression (Aljazeera.com). The calls for international assistance have been extensive – even Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN had voiced this out during an NPR interview on Feb 27 and was fired immediately after the interview was aired.

    As the presiding regional organization in South East Asia, ASEAN has been pressed to take steps to resolve the conflict. US President Joe Biden has urged ASEAN nations to push for the immediate restoration of Burmese democracy (cnn.com). While ASEAN is still deliberating on its next steps, Indonesia has taken the lead in efforts to resolve Myanmar's turmoil. On Wednesday Feb 24, 2021, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met with Myanmar's military-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin for talks in the Thai capital (channelnewsasia.com).

    The plan was for Minister Marsudi to visit Yangon after the meeting, to make sure the junta keeps its promise of holding elections with monitors to ensure they are fair and inclusive for the people of Myanmar. However, the visit to Yangon was cancelled after protesters gathered in front of the Indonesian embassy in Thailand to urge her to cease dialogue with the junta. When asked to comment on the situation, Minister Marsudi stated that “the safety and wellbeing of the people in Myanmar must be the top priority” and that “their wishes must be heard” (asia.nikkei.com).

    Based on the constantly evolving situation in Myanmar, and taking into consideration ASEAN’s mandate, there are several key actions that ASEAN can take to deescalate Myanmar’s conflict.

    First, communication channels should be kept open. Communication channels between ASEAN members, with Myanmar’s military and with the people of Myanmar are crucial. Furthermore, continued communication with the international community is also important. This ensures that people around the world are kept informed about the current situation in Myanmar, thus reducing the probability of human rights violations during the junta.

    Second, ASEAN should continue assessing the situation in Myanmar in real-time. The upcoming ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting should be underlined with a concurrent agenda. Aside from opening a communication channel, ASEAN needs to negotiate with the Myanmar military, so that it is permitted to render assistance, for example, by sending envoys to Myanmar. These envoys would then be tasked with assessing the situation on the ground, hence making the assessment transparent, public, and accountable. These would help ASEAN to present possible solutions to the Myanmar turmoil.

    Third, ASEAN should lay out possible solutions for Myanmar. As ASEAN is governed by consensus decision-making, Indonesia needs to garner the support of other member countries in order to push forward its suggestions on how to resolve the conflict. Moreover, the wishes and wellbeing of the Myanmar people should be at the forefront of every solution presented.

    Fourth, ASEAN should keep Myanmar’s conflict as a priority issue until it is resolved. Currently, momentum is high since the junta happened just last month. Unfortunately, with all news, interest from the international community will eventually die down unless action is taken.

    Overall, ASEAN is in a dilemma. On one hand, ASEAN’s claim as the center point of Indo-Pacific nations will ring hollow if they do not act. However, on the other hand, ASEAN is known for its non-intervention policy where the sovereignty of each country is held in high regard. Nevertheless, Myanmar’s conflict is directly affecting the three pillars of ASEAN: the economic, socio-cultural, and specifically the political-security pillars. In order to safeguard these pillars, ASEAN needs to work toward solutions for Myanmar, and the region as a whole.

    *)

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