UN Urges ASEAN to Intensify Diplomacy on Myanmar

Shailaja Neelakantan
UN Urges ASEAN to Intensify Diplomacy on Myanmar Anti-junta protesters burn the flag of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Mandalay, Myanmar, June 5, 2021.

The U.N. human rights chief urged ASEAN on Friday to intensify efforts to stop violence in post-coup Myanmar, days after officials from the regional bloc met with the Burmese junta chief but failed to extract a promise to end bloodshed.    

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations meanwhile has yet to name an envoy to Myanmar, an Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman said Friday, seven weeks after ASEAN member-states agreed to appoint and send an emissary to meet with all Burmese stakeholders.

“The High Commissioner encouraged the intensification of regional diplomacy, including by ASEAN and other influential States, to insist on the immediate cessation of violence and ongoing human rights violations,” the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement.

“Dialogue is urgently needed with the National Unity Government and civil society stakeholders,” the statement said, referring to Myanmar’s shadow civilian government.

Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, made the appeal to ASEAN while demanding that a further escalation of violence in the Southeast Asian country “must be halted to prevent even greater loss of life.”

“State security forces have continued to use heavy weaponry, including airstrikes, against armed groups and against civilians and civilian objects, including Christian churches," she said.

“There appear to be no efforts towards de-escalation but rather a build-up of troops in key areas, contrary to the commitments the military made to ASEAN to cease the violence."

ASEAN did not invite any NUG representatives or civil society members to a special summit on Myanmar held in Jakarta in late April, but did invite junta chief Min Aung Hlaing.

The two ASEAN officials who visited Myanmar on June 4-5 met with Min Aung Hlaing but not with NUG representatives. They also referred to the senior general who overthrew the elected government by a title he assumed for himself – “Chairman of the State Administrative Council” – the official name for the Burmese junta.

That reference to this title was contained in a statement issued by ASEAN on June 5, but the entire statement was removed from the bloc’s official website three days later. However, BenarNews made a copy of the statement’s text.

The officials who visited Myanmar were from ASEAN chair Brunei. Officials at the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta did not respond to multiple inquiries from BenarNews about why the statement was taken offline. Since the visit to Myanmar, Bruneian government officials have also not issued any statements.

The bloc likely removed the statement because of this “most fatal blunder,” as a Jakarta Post editorial described it on Thursday.

“It was an open recognition of the junta, while ASEAN only acknowledges Gen. Hlaing as the commander in chief of Myanmar’s military,” the editorial noted.

In addition, ASEAN had agreed at the April 24 special summit that it would name an envoy to send to Myanmar, and because that envoy has not been named, some observers wondered in what capacity the Bruneian officials visited Naypyidaw.

Rene Pattiradjawane, an associate fellow with The Habibie Center, a Jakarta think-tank, believes Brunei wants a bigger role in the decision on an envoy, he said on Twitter.

At their meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, the two officials submitted to him names of candidates the bloc could appoint as a special envoy. ASEAN operates by consensus so this was not entirely surprising.

But Abdul Kadir Jailani, director general for Asia-Pacific and Africa at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made clear that the decision on who is named ASEAN envoy to Myanmar will be made by the foreign ministers of all member states.

“In order to deliver the mandate given by the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting, the appointment of Special Envoy to Myanmar shall come with a clear policy guidance from the ASEAN Foreign Ministers,” Jailani tweeted on Thursday.

This suggests Indonesia was none too pleased with what transpired at the ASEAN officials’ meeting in Myanmar.

As it is, a day after that meeting, ASEAN member-states Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore expressed their frustration at the delay in the bloc’s naming of an envoy, amid reports of differences between member states on the issue and even on how to deal with Myanmar.

In addition, some of ASEAN’s member-states focus on the bloc’s policy of non-interference when it suits them politically, said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist with Nottingham University in Malaysia.

“ASEAN has tried to portray itself as an important interlocutor in dialogue with the Myanmar military, and what has happened is the Myanmar military has refused to respond to anything meaningful suggested by the bloc,” Welsh said in a podcast on Thursday.

This has given the impression that “ASEAN is being played and this has affected its credibility and fueled divisions within the group,” she said.

ASEAN has therefore created a situation where the international community is now “stuck on what to do” because countries and groups outside the region have said time and again that the regional bloc is central to efforts to return normalcy to Myanmar, Welsh said.

In fact, Kurt Campbell, U.S. President Joe Biden’s policy coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, said at a conference this week that Washington was “asking other countries in the surrounding regions” to take the necessary steps to both isolate and reach out to Myanmar’s junta, Nikkei Asia reported.

ASEAN is in danger of being rendered irrelevant as Myanmar has pushed it to the brink, said a paper published this week by The Lowy Institute, a think-tank in Australia.

“ASEAN has international support to deal with the crisis in Myanmar – from the U.N., to China, the U.S. and Australia – yet has not proven capable of effectively managing the cunning of the generals, or the grievances of the Myanmar population,” said the paper by Nicola Williams, a public policy researcher at Australian National University.

“The Myanmar coup presents to ASEAN the most serious threat to the importance of its regional diplomacy since the Cold War.”

Ronna Nirmala contributed to this report from Jakarta.


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