ASEAN Criticized for Not Taking Stronger Stand on Myanmar

Shailaja Neelakantan
ASEAN Criticized for Not Taking Stronger Stand on Myanmar Myanmar citizens in Thailand protest in front of the Indonesian embassy in Bangkok, Feb. 23, 2021.

Neighboring countries are under pressure to take a stronger stance against the junta in Myanmar, a day after the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Thailand met in Bangkok with its top envoy.

Activists criticized the Indonesian government on social media for talking with representatives of the junta, saying that doing so gives legitimacy to the generals in Naypyidaw who toppled an elected government on Feb. 1.

“ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] is still missing in action,” Malaysian MP Charles Santiago, the chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said Thursday in a statement about the trilateral meeting between the top diplomats at an international airport outside the Thai capital.

“It is quite embarrassing that nearly a month since the coup, ASEAN Foreign Ministers have still not met to develop a coordinated response to a blatant violation of its Charter by the Myanmar military,” Santiago said in a statement.

In the coup’s wake, mass protests against the power grab have taken place across Myanmar, with the military responding with violence. Government security forces have killed at least four people and injured dozens in trying to quell the civil disobedience movement.

ASEAN is in disarray and needs to get its act together, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with TRT World, a Turkish news channel.

“Right now ASEAN doesn’t have a center or a way to coordinate and ensure that the organization can speak with one voice,” Robertson said.

“Because of that, we are looking at a situation where everyone is looking to ASEAN to solve the problem because they can talk to Myanmar, but ASEAN is at sea on this issue.”

ASEAN parliamentarian Santiago was unhappy with the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting between Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and her Myanmar and Thai counterparts, Wunna Maung Lwin and Don Pramudwinai.

Retno said afterwards that she told Naypyidaw’s top envoy that the “the wishes of the Myanmar people must be heard,” and called for “an inclusive democratic transition process.”

“What does Indonesia mean when talking to ‘restore an inclusive democratic transition’ in Myanmar?” Santiago said.

“There is only one thing to restore: that is the duly elected Parliament that was meant to convene on 1 February. That is what the Myanmar people want and tell the world and the junta everyday on the streets of Myanmar.”

The envoy appointed by Myanmar’s junta also met Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha in a closed-door session in Bangkok on Wednesday.

Myanmar developments ‘disastrous’ for region

For HRW’s Robertson, the venue of the meeting of the three foreign ministers was telling.

“The fact that Myanmar’s foreign minister is flying here [to Bangkok] shows that he understands that Prayuth in Thailand is in a similar situation to Myanmar a couple of years ago. Prayuth is a coup maker himself,” Robertson said.

As army chief, Gen. Prayuth engineered a coup that overthrew the elected administration of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. Prayuth became prime minister after the coup and retained the post after a general election in 2019 that was widely viewed as rigged.

In fact, immediately after the coup in Naypyidaw in early February, Thailand, along with Vietnam and the Philippines, had said they would not interfere in Myanmar’s affairs. That line mirrored a core principle of the ASEAN bloc that says member-states will not interfere in each other’s domestic matters.

Manila later changed its tune and joined Indonesia and Malaysia in expressing concern about the situation in Myanmar.

Brunei, as the 2021 chair of ASEAN, held a virtual meeting with Myanmar officials to hear about the situation there. On Wednesday night, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Bruneian Foreign Minister II Dato Erywan Yusof, during which they discussed “ASEAN’s essential role in resolving the crisis in Burma created by the military’s seizure of power,” the State Department said.

Meanwhile in a joint open letter to ASEAN, dozens of Southeast Asian NGOs said that a fractured response by the regional bloc to the post-coup situation in Myanmar will not yield results, and nor will platitudes.

“Recent developments in Myanmar are disastrous for its people, as well as the region as a whole. They create the potential for thousands of people to flee violence and persecution, as well as a volatile regional environment. …We firmly believe that it is not only crucial, but also in ASEAN’s best interests, to take a strong stance on these urgent and worrying developments,” the letter by 70 NGOs said.

“Failure to do so risks further damaging ASEAN’s reputation as an effective regional body that can meaningfully contribute to a strong and viable community of nations.”

As it is, Malaysia this week was criticized internationally for sending back more than 1,000 Myanmar nationals –  in defiance of a court order to suspend the deportation – on Myanmar navy ships.

Rights activists and the United Nations refugee agency said that refugees and asylum seekers who risked facing persecution and violence in Myanmar were among those sent back.

The European Union said it had urged Malaysia to halt the deportation, and “deeply regretted” Malaysia’s action.

Ned Price, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said the United States was concerned that Malaysia had sent back the Myanmar nationals “in spite of a Malaysian court order barring their deportation and in light of ongoing unrest in Burma” since the coup.

‘Stop acts of legitimizing the military regime’

While a few analysts have commended Indonesia for taking the lead in pushing neighboring countries to get more involved in addressing the Myanmar coup, rights activists say even those efforts have been ham-fisted.

Earlier this week, Retno had to cancel her proposed trip to Myanmar after hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Indonesian embassy in Yangon to protest what they said would be a recognition of the military regime.

Still, Retno went ahead and met with her Myanmar counterpart in Bangkok on Wednesday.

Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights activist and lawyer, wondered why.

“People from the grassroots to the U.N. to the World Council of Churches have urged Indonesia to meet face to face with pro-independence Papuan groups to resolve the conflict, but those calls were ignored,” the activist tweeted, referring to Indonesia’s restive province of Papua.

“Indonesia instead met with the Myanmar junta even though there were demonstrations in Myanmar and Thailand [against the meeting.]”

A young activist from Myanmar said she and her fellow protestors were “shocked” that Retno met with a Myanmar military-appointed minister.

“We totally condemn this action at this sensitive time. We want ASEAN governments to consult with stakeholders. ASEAN needs to stand with the people of Myanmar. Don’t add to our burden,” said Scarlett at a virtual press briefing organized by Indonesian human rights group KontraS, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development and Asia Justice and Rights.

“We don’t want to give legitimacy to the military government, stop engagement with the military engagement. You said you are concerned about the welfare and safety of people of Myanmar. I’m not sure your engagement [with the military] is conveying your message,” she said, addressing the Indonesian foreign minister.

For her part, Retno said Indonesia chose not to stand still.

“To do nothing is not an option,” Retno said in a statement after her meeting with the Myanmar envoy.

Meanwhile on Thursday, Thai PM Prayuth said that his meeting with the Myanmar minister did not amount to an “endorsement” of the military regime.

“[We] did not endorse, did not endorse, I listened on behalf of Thailand, also on behalf of ASEAN,” he told reporters when asked about the meeting.

“On their political issues, we gave good wishes that they move towards democracy as quickly as possible. Each country has different problems.”  

Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta and Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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