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Once Bitten, Twice Shy over Myanmar

4 February 2021

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By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: Long before it became a member, Asean was blindly defending Myanmar, believing that pressure from neighbours and regional friends would make a difference. It did but it took an extremely high toll on the bloc's reputation as well as causing uncertainty in the region. Luckily, change came after nearly two decades, but now it has been backsliding.

At the time, the Western countries and especially the US and the European Union were flabbergasted at Asean's perseverance and consistency in warding off criticism against Myanmar, formerly Burma. They could not understand why such a pariah state should be shielded, let alone taken in as a member later on. They were also destined to impose all sorts of sanctions aimed at isolating and punishing the regime as harshly as possible. As it turned out, it was the Myanmar people who suffered as did its backward economy. The Tatmadaw leaders were not affected.

The coup last week was a shock to all Asean colleagues, not least because the memory of the Tatmadaw's dark days is still fresh. In addition, there was no justification at all for the military to grab power. After all, since 2011, Myanmar has done pretty well in terms of moving towards a fully functioning democracy with a moderate free press, which has attracted direct foreign investment. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has also displayed his political prowess as well as a general who has been transformed as a democratic player, winning support from the West. Then, all hell broke loose as the civilians and Tatmadaw could not let go of their demands, which eventually led to the de facto coup.

The new State Administrative Council (SAC), set up by the coup makers has appointed a team of senior military officials and technocrats, among them some who served in the Thein Sein government, to run the country for one year during the emergency. One old hand is Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, who served in the same position from March 2011 to March 2016. His return indicates that the new regime in Nay Pyi Taw wants to stay connected with ASEAN and the international community. Before being named foreign minister, he served in several major Western countries, including France and Belgium as well as in Switzerland at the United Nations in Geneva. As such, he knows exactly what his country needs to do to keep itself running.

For an exit strategy, he can follow many examples from other Asean colleagues, which have encountered similar internal challenges. Back in May 2014, immediately after Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha staged a surprise coup, he despatched a senior Foreign Ministry official to Nay Pyi Taw to update the then Asean chair. This was an important step as Thailand did not want to isolate itself from the group or the international community. Bangkok still wanted to engage with ASEAN and garnered support from the dialogue partners. The same official also visited Laos, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia to keep them abreast of the situation.

A few weeks later, Thailand also briefed the EU representatives at the 20th Asean-EU Ministerial Meeting in Belgium. The joint chairman's statement issued at the end of the meeting devoted one paragraph referring to the country's situation. The statement said that the EU, as a longstanding partner of Thailand and Asean, was concerned with the recent political developments in the country. It also specified the time frame given by Thailand and underlined the importance of an early return to constitutional democracy including holding credible elections in accordance with "the will of the Thai people". These pledges helped to calm down several hard line and progressive EU members. The SAC should learn from the Thai experience and follow the will of the Myanmar people.

It's not surprising that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing sent a six-page personal letter to Gen Prayut last Monday explaining the situation that led to the seizing of power. The letter gave nine reasons why the election was not as "free and fair election" as claimed. The senior general reiterated that the Tatmadaw had adhered to democratic norms and squarely blamed the Union Election Commission (UEC) and the NLD for the failure to make public final data of the voter tallies. The letter also emphasised that it was the military that set the country toward the democratic transition after it drew up the 2008 constitution, which led to the current democratic development.

He cited much evidence including alleged fraudulent poll lists amounting to 10,482,116 votes. The Tatmadaw, he stressed, had consistently raised the issue with the UEC but it had been completely ignored. The Tatmadaw does not object to the voter outcome but it was the interaction with the UEC and the NLD government that caused friction. The letter ended with an appeal for the "physical and intellectual" support of Thailand for the Tatmadaw's efforts to cement the democratic process.

There are good examples from other ASEAN countries as well. Both Indonesian former presidents BL Habibie (1998-1999) and Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001) played extraordinary leadership roles during their presidencies, as they voluntarily updated the anxious Asean colleagues on the situation in the troubled Timor Leste. Later on in 2000 Indonesia requested that Asean take a proactive role in the international peacekeeping operation in Timor Leste under the auspices of the United Nations.

Surin Pitsuwan, the Thai foreign minister who served as the ASEAN chair that year, immediately took up the request and assembled a coalition of willing peacekeepers from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines to join other international forces. The joint effort by these ASEAN member countries won loud plaudits from the international community. Most importantly, it helped reduce mounting external pressure. This precedent manifested one truism that whenever the Asean is facing internal challenges, it is up to the members themselves to take up the issues and resolve them in a peaceful and amicable manner. That is the only way to preserve and strengthen ASEAN centrality.

In other words, this time around, the new rulers in Nay Pyi Taw cannot expect Asean to defend their actions. More than the Asean members would like to admit, the bloc has suffered for too long as a result of Myanmar's behaviour. The press statement issued by the UN Security Council clearly showed that the world is not going to let go of its concern about Myanmar. It called for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and others and "the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, and fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law".

At this juncture, ASEAN centrality is at stake. The US and EU will certainly impose targeted sanctions in days to come. Other dialogue partners are watching closely and any failure to come up with tangible initiatives will see Asean's credibility with the international community falter further.

The SAC must engage Asean in all possible ways to overcome the various challenges ahead in the next 11 months. On the day of the coup, Asean showed its magnanimity by issuing a quick four-point chairman statement outlining the Asean principles enshrined in the charter including the principle of democracy and respect of human rights and governance, as well as referring to internal stability of member countries as an essential component of peace, security and prosperity in the Asean Community. As in the past, when Asean needs to speak out, it has. ASEAN which did not mince its words during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, issued a statement from New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly expressing "revulsion" over the killings of peaceful demonstrators by the Tatmadaw.

It is fortunate that in the midst of the pandemic, face-to-face meetings are prohibited. Therefore, scheduled online conferences will not cause diplomatic problems as before. Otherwise, protocols and procedural steps could be a big hurdle for Asean's ties with its Western dialogue partners. Last week's online meeting among the ASEAN Defence Senior Officials' Meeting Working Group went ahead with Nay Pyi Taw's participation -- the first Asean-related meeting since the coup.

On Friday, after their meeting in Jakarta, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassim, they called for a special meeting to discuss the situation in Myanmar. It is a tough call which certainly would be opposed by Nay Pyi Taw. In response to the Thai coup in May 2014, an Asean member called for a special foreign ministerial meeting to discuss the coup. While Thailand rejected the idea outright, it was open to discussion in a discreet manner.

It is highly likely that the SAC will turn down the proposal. As a close neighbour, Thailand can serve as a facilitator or a bridge between ASEAN and Myanmar at this pivotal moment. Given the excellent ties Thailand has with both the civilian and military leaders, Bangkok is in a good position to serve as a go-between. Of course, the ASEAN chair has to grant such a mandate to Thailand.

Indeed, given Maung Lwin's experience in handling the Thai coup and observing the subsequent actions of the Thai authorities post 2014 to limit political damage to the grouping and itself, is hopeful that he and the SAC will soon take some quick forward-looking steps to assure Asean that Myanmar remains committed and engaged and will try to bring normalcy back as soon as possible without any violence incurred.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in The Bangkok Post.   Click here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

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