April 28, 2021 at 12:20 am
Ernesto M. Hilario
"A peaceful settlement is in the long-term interest of the nation and the entire Southeast Asian region."
For a fleeting moment there, after reading news reports on the conclusion of the summit organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta on Saturday (April 24) to discuss the crisis in Myanmar, we thought that at last, the military junta that seized power last February 1 in a coup d’etat had had a change of heart and was now willing to back down and mend its ways and return to the barracks after nearly three months.
After all, the meeting had led to an agreement with the representative from Myanmar, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, for the immediate cessation of violence, the start of constructive dialogue among all parties, access to humanitarian assistance, and the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy who would be allowed to visit the country.
The junta chief did not agree to calls for the release of political prisoners, including the leader of the ousted civilian government, Aung San Suu Kyi, although the participants from the nine other members of the regional bloc wanted this as part of the deal.
Our optimism proved to be short-lived.
Scattered protests took place in Myanmar’s big cities on Sunday.
On Monday, activists staunchly opposed to the military junta urged people to stop paying electricity bills and agricultural loans, and keep their children away from school in what appeared to be a firm rejection of the top general’s pledges at a regional summit to end the post-coup crisis.
The ASEAN accord appears doomed to fail as it glaringly lacked any timeline for ending the crisis.
This was emphasized by Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia for Human Rights Watch, who said: “The lack of a clear timeline for action, and ASEAN’s well-known weakness in implementing the decisions and plans that it issues, are real concerns that no one should overlook. There is a strong need now to continue the pressure on the Myanmar military junta, expanding the targeted economic sanctions on top junta leaders and military-owned companies, and going after the oil and gas revenue that continues to fill the junta’s coffers.”
Thus far, some 750 people have been killed by the junta’s security forces, and thousands more, including street protesters and journalists, have been arrested and placed under detention. Security forces have deployed live ammunition to quell the uprising.
The civil disobedience campaign has crippled the economy and raised the prospect of hunger, international aid agencies have warned.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was among the ASEAN leaders in the meeting, revealed that the Myanmar junta chief “said he heard us, he would take the points in, which he considered helpful...He was not opposed to ASEAN playing a constructive role, or an ASEAN delegation visit, or humanitarian assistance.”
But Lee added the process had a long way to go, “because it’s one thing to say you’ll cease violence and release political prisoners; it’s another thing to get it done.”
The ASEAN meeting did raise hopes that the Myanmar crisis would soon ease up with the unexpected participation of the head of the military junta.
The regional bloc has a long-standing policy of consensus decision-making and non-interference in the affairs of its members. But this did not prevent it from taking notice of the escalating violence and to try to end the bloodshed.
For US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the turmoil in Myanmar “deserves serious and immediate attention.”
Myanmar’s shadow government of ousted lawmakers had welcomed the call by ASEAN leaders for an end to “military violence”. A spokesperson of the government, many of them from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, described it as “encouraging news”.
“This is what the National Unity Government has been calling for,” said the NUG’s minister of international cooperation known as Dr. Sasa, who is currently in hiding with the rest of his fellow lawmakers.
“We eagerly await the engagement by the (ASEAN) secretary general... we look forward to firm action by ASEAN to follow up its decisions and restore our democracy and freedom for our people and for the region.”
UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews said it remains to be seen how effective the bloc’s engagement will be. “The result of the ASEAN Summit will be found in Myanmar, not (in) a document...Will the killing stop? Will the terrorizing of neighborhoods end? Will the thousands abducted be released? Will impunity persist?”
We have closely followed developments in Myanmar since the coup d’etat in February and have marveled at the tenacity and determination of the people in opposing the junta through peaceful street protests that have nonetheless been met with brute force. We have no illusion that the military junta in Myanmar will soon hand over power to the very people they ousted from office even after the Jakarta consensus. But the persistent civil disobedience movement, growing armed resistance by various indigenous groups, international economic sanctions and dogged diplomatic efforts should send a every strong message to the military junta that they cannot rule with an iron hand for long, and a peaceful settlement is in the long-term interest of the nation and the entire Southeast Asian region as well.