After the recent summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where leaders discussed the Myanmar situation as a matter of grave concern, what did the ruling military junta in that country do?
They freed on November 17 a former British ambassador, a Japanese filmmaker and an Australian economic adviser to deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, aside from 6,000 other prisoners as part of a mass amnesty.
State-controlled media said the amnesty included 5,774 prisoners and foreigners were released “for the relationship with other countries and also for humanitarian purposes”.
Does that indicate a change of heart by the ruling military, that they are now willing to give up power and allow the duly elected civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi to take over?
Not by a long shot.
While the release of 6,000 dissenters is a big step forward in resolving the crisis, it does not signify that the Myanmar ruling junta led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will pursue the five-point peace plan agreed to in an Asean meeting in Jakarta in April last year.
The peace plan called for an immediate end to violence in Myanmar, the holding of dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special envoy, the delivery of humanitarian assistance from ASEAN and a visit of the special envoy to Myanmar to meet with all parties.
We have been following events in Myanmar since February 2021 when the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is called, mounted a coup d’etat and arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the National Unity Government, thus putting an abrupt halt to the gradual transition to a fragile democracy that Suu Kyi had led after a long period of house arrest.
The military takeover of Myanmar triggered months of civil disobedience by various sectors in key cities that were violently suppressed by the police and the military, resulting in the killing of more than a thousand street protesters and the arrest and detention of thousands more.
The violent crackdown on the civil disobedience movement, however, also led to the forging of unity by various rebel groups in the countryside and armed resistance that continues to this day, even as the rebel groups are outnumbered and outgunned by the vastly superior Myanmar military.
International condemnation of the bloody suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar has reached a crescendo, with the ASEAN member-states and other nations joining the clamor for the Myanmar ruling junta to stop the carnage and bring back the country on the road to democracy.
Speaking in Bangkok where he attended one of the ASEAN summit meetings, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the release was “one bright spot in what is otherwise an incredibly dark time.”
“Whether this signals anything more broadly about the intentions of the regime, I can’t tell you – too soon to say.”
Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno earlier said Japan will continue to demand Myanmar take specific and appropriate actions to rebuild democratic society, and to solve problems peacefully and seriously.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said people should not be jailed for expressing political views: “One hopes this release will not be a one-off event but rather the start of a process by the junta to release all political prisoners.”
Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government, which backs the resistance movement, welcomed the amnesty, but said the world should not be duped.
“These types of hostage tactics by the junta should not fool the international community into believing that the military has changed its colors,” said Htin Linn Aung, an NUG minister and spokesperson.
Human rights groups have said the detention and recent release of the three foreigners, as well as thousands of others, were politically motivated.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which has been documenting the military’s crackdown, said the junta had freed the foreigners to ease political pressure. “Yet again, political prisoners are being used as bargaining chips,” it warned.
Even as some members of ASEAN wanted to kick Myanmar out of the regional body, President Marcos Jr. called for the speedy implementation of the peace plan.
“While the Philippines adheres to the ASEAN principles of non-interference and consensus, the protracted suffering of the people in Myanmar, in part due to the lack of progress in the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus, also challenges the ASEAN-honored principles of democracy and the respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the ASEAN Charter,” he pointed out.
We agree with the view that direct engagement by the ruling junta with all stakeholders, including the political opposition, is the only way out of the Myanmar crisis.
If they refuse to do so, the ASEAN should move to expel Myanmar from the regional bloc, and impose economic and other sanctions to force the junta to hand over power to the duly elected civilian government so that the process of implementing political reforms and upholding respect for human rights can start in earnest.