Rights Groups: A Month after Consensus, ASEAN ‘Doing Nothing’ on Myanmar

Shailaja Neelakantan
Washington
2021-05-24
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Rights Groups: A Month after Consensus, ASEAN ‘Doing Nothing’ on Myanmar Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (left) is seen upon his arrival before the ASEAN leaders' summit, at the Soekarno Hatta International airport on the outskirts of Jakarta, April 24, 2021.
[Indonesian Presidential Palace handout via Reuters]

ASEAN’s failure to take any follow-up action on Myanmar, a full month after the regional bloc unveiled a diplomatic roadmap to address the military coup there, is eating up precious time and costing lives, rights groups and analysts said.

Meanwhile, the Burmese junta chief told a Chinese television channel that he was not ready to implement the so-called Five-Point Consensus reached at a special ASEAN leaders’ summit, which he attended in Jakarta in late April.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations needs to do more than just talk to stem the violence that has claimed more than 800 lives since the Feb. 1 Myanmar military coup, said ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a regional group of lawmakers that promotes democracy.

“It has already been a full month and nothing has changed. [Myanmar junta chief] Min Aung Hlaing is blatantly ignoring ASEAN’s calls and wasting their time,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian Member of Parliament and chair of APHR.

“The consensus that was reached in April was a good initiative, but now ASEAN must prove that they can pay more than just lip service. It must take bold action by holding him accountable, putting in place binding measures, and laying out consequences for the military’s brutality.”

According to Gerard McCarthy, a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, “ASEAN’s delay to appoint a Myanmar envoy is claiming lives.”

“As millions starve, ASEAN’s humanitarian effort – meant to be the ‘easy’ part of [the] leaders’ consensus commitment – remains hamstrung without an envoy to decide modalities. Huge cost to ASEAN relevance the longer this drags on,” he said via Twitter.

On April 22, the U.N.’s World Food Program warned that within six months, an additional 3.4 million people would go hungry in Myanmar, particularly in urban centers, over and above the 2.8 million people considered to be food insecure before the military takeover in February. 

The ASEAN consensus, which Min Aung Hlaing reportedly agreed to during the April 24 meeting in Jakarta, also called for an end to the violence that had killed hundreds of civilians by then. But that, too, is nowhere in sight a whole month later, Forum-Asia, a network of members in 21 regional countries, said on Monday.

“ASEAN’s inaction signals a lack of urgency in fulfilling its five-point consensus on the Myanmar crisis,” Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, executive director of Forum-Asia, said in a statement.

“It has been a month since the ASEAN Leaders Meeting but the regional body has not rolled out any concrete plans in responding to the distressed asylum-seekers along Myanmar’s borders and has not even appointed its special envoy.”

Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement group said ASEAN was not making any effort whatsoever to resolve the crisis almost four months after the Burmese military toppled civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government.

“Stop saying ‘ASEAN centrality’ at least till the time they prove their worth. Myanmar is burning and ASEAN is doing nothing,” the group tweeted.

It was addressing the international community, which has said that the regional bloc has a key role in resolving the situation in member-state Myanmar. The United Nations Security Council also endorsed the ASEAN consensus.

ASEAN’s “Five-Point Consensus” on Myanmar called for an immediate cessation of violence, with all parties exercising “utmost restraint.” Myanmar military and security forces have killed 824 people, mainly anti-coup protesters, since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Thai-based NGO.

The ASEAN consensus also called for constructive dialogue among all parties; the mediation of such talks by a special ASEAN envoy; the provision of ASEAN-coordinated humanitarian assistance and a visit to Myanmar by an ASEAN delegation to meet with all parties.

However, in what was probably his first interview since the coup, Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing told the Chinese Phoenix Television that his priority was to calm the situation in the country.

An interviewer said to the military chief: “So the conclusion is that Myanmar is not ready to implement the five-point consensus reached by ASEAN yet?”

“Correct,” answered Min Aung Hlaing, according to tweets by a reporter for Phoenix TV.

In fact, ASEAN’s consensus began to unravel almost immediately after the special meeting in Indonesia’s capital. Myanmar’s junta did not stop the violence and has continued to turn its guns on pro-democracy protesters.

On April 26, a statement from the State Administration Council – the junta’s official name – said it would act on the ASEAN agreement only after there was “stability” in the country. And on May 7, a Myanmar military spokesman said that “only after we achieve a certain level of security and stability, we will cooperate regarding that envoy.”

Momentum ‘has dissipated’

Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, said “ASEAN has been left behind.” 

“Whatever momentum the grouping carried out of the 24 April summit has dissipated,” Poling wrote in a column on Monday for East Asia Forum, an online policy platform for analysis on Asia.

“As all sides arm themselves, the protester death toll soars past 800, and the Myanmar economy faces collapse, ASEAN leisurely deliberates over the name of an envoy no one is interested in meeting.”

ASEAN should have still gone ahead and appointed an envoy, observers had said.

ASEAN’s capacity to shape the Myanmar military’s policies is limited, according to Barry Desker, an academic at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

“It is a reminder that ASEAN is paying the price for including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam between 1995 and 1999 without any conditions, following the end of the Cold War,” Desker wrote in East Asia Forum, referring to authoritarian or one-party states who were admitted into the regional bloc.

There is still scope, though, for individual ASEAN members to do more, Poling of CSIS wrote.

Thailand, for instance, “could play an important role in reducing the flow of revenue to the junta while mitigating the impact on Myanmar citizens,” he said.

“If anyone could convince the junta to accept such a bitter pill, it would be the Thai leadership.”

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