Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/STR
Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Stringer

CHIANG MAI – At first it appeared that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had summoned Myanmar coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to Jakarta to read him the riot act.

Before the extraordinary summit, leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines had condemned the lethal violence unleashed since the February 1 coup, with at least 755 protesters killed by the Myanmar police and military, and called for the release of all political prisoners, now numbering nearly 4,000 including elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

But after the military leader attended the April 24 meeting, he left with what many viewed as a mere slap on the wrist. ASEAN agreed on a five-point plan for resolving Myanmar’s crisis, which by almost any measure was bland and toothless even by the regional grouping’s policies of consensus and non-interference.

In essence, the meeting put equal blame on the Myanmar military’s gunning down peaceful demonstrators, including children as young as five, and the protesters’ use of slingshots and other homemade devices to defend themselves against the security forces’ war weapons.  

“We tried not to accuse his [Min Aung Hlaing’s] side too much because we don’t care who’s causing it,” Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told reporters after the meeting.

The Myanmar military’s mouthpiece Global New Light of Myanmar reported on April 25 that Min Aung Hlaing had emphasized the importance of close cooperation with ASEAN member countries in accord with the ASEAN Charter, and little more than that.

In an April 26 statement, the coup leader said he would carefully consider ASEAN leaders’ recommended steps for solving the crisis “after the situation stabilizes”, and that would be done only if ASEAN’s plan of action facilitated the implementation of the junta’s own policies.

The initial reaction from the “National Unity Government” (NUG), a coalition of elected parliamentarians, ethnic groups and other anti-military personalities, was to welcome the outcome of the Jakarta summit.

Anti-military protesters flash signs calling for a rejection of junta rule in Myanmar. Photo: Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via AFP

In an April 24 statement, the same day as the meeting was held, NUG spokesperson Dr Sasa stated that he was “encouraged” by the consensus that ASEAN had reached.

Rights groups say the danger with Dr Sasa’s statement and media reports that echo similar sentiments is that the main beneficiary of the summit would be Min Aung Hlaing’s coup-installed government.

The international community may thus now believe that the time is ripe to tone down its criticism of the junta’s murderous acts in order to give the ASEAN plan a chance. The notion that the ASEAN summit was a “success” also opens the way for other international actors to engage the junta with outcomes that are unlikely to lead to the restoraration of democracy in Myanmar.

But, as Phil Robertson of  Human Rights Watch stated in an April 25 press release: “The lack of a clear timeline for action, and ASEAN’s well-known weakness in implementing the decisions and plans that it issues, are real concerns that no one should overlook.”

There is actually very little in ASEAN’s “five points of consensus” that could even be called a plan. The first point states that “all parties should exercise utmost restraint” and stop using violence.

The second calls for a “constructive dialog among all parties concerned” while the third says that ASEAN shall appoint a special envoy to “facilitate the dialog process.” The fourth says ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance through its coordinating center for disaster management — aid that ultimately would have to be channeled through the military regime and thus unlikely to reach those most in need.

The fifth and final point says that ASEAN’s “special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.”

But with the junta’s insistence on adherence to its own “roadmap”, which includes a vague vow to hold new elections perhaps within a year, those points are likely non-starters even if they were implemented — which of course would have to be done through ASEAN’s two golden principles of non-interference and consensus.

Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing (L) is greeted at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta international airport in Tangerang, April 24, 2021. Photo: Handout/AFP

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen attended the Jakarta meeting, but has stated that what’s happening in Myanmar is an “internal affair.” Other authoritarian member states like communist-ruled Vietnam and Laos will not be keen to create a bloc precedent that could draw into question their own non-democratic systems of government.

Despite Dr Sasa’s positive appraisal of the summit, the reaction on Myanmar’s social media has been overwhelmingly negative and verged on outright hostility towards ASEAN, with many condemning the plan as a stab in the back.

The 88 Generation group of activists, which brings together veterans of Myanmar’s long struggle for democracy, issued a statement even before the meeting took place accusing ASEAN of always siding with the military and acting “in its self-interest and has never been seen to assist nor solve any political discord within its member states.”

The Irrawaddy, a website run by Myanmar journalists,  said that “if ASEAN is looking to demonstrate progress, it should go further by condemning the violence and calling for the released of political prisoners and an immediate halt to torture of detainees and other abuses…Myanmar’s implosion has only further exposed ASEAN as the pathetic and irrelevant institution it is.”

Meanwhile, the killings and arrests of protesters have continued unabated, even during and after the summit. Kaung Htet Naing, a 22-year-old student, was shot and killed in Mandalay on April 24.

Another young protester was killed in the central town of Pyinmana and a 63-year-old woman died in custody after being abducted from her house by police in raids following the Jakarta summit.   

In the commercial capital Yangon, soldiers and police raided the house of Thura Saw, a former cameraman for the popular TV news channel DVB. Among those arrested since the coup are more than 70 journalists of whom 40 are still under detention while arrest warrants have been issued for another 22 media workers.

A draft statement circulating before the Jakarta summit included a demand for the release of all political prisoners, but that was dropped as one of the “consensus points” after the arrival of Min Aung Hlaing.

Myanmar’s Tatmadaw flexes in an Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw, March 27, 2021. Photo: Agencies

With the Jakarta summit in the bag, the Myanmar junta’s likely next step to win international legitimacy will be to woo UN agencies, whose Yangon-based officials potentially stand to lose their jobs unless agreements can be reached with the junta.

That’s worked in the wake of past military massacres. In 1988, when the rest of the world shunned the murderous junta infamously known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, Oscar Lazo, the head of Yangon-based UN agencies and himself representing the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), invited the SLORC-appointed minister for agriculture and forestry General Chit Swe to attend an FAO conference in Rome.

That was hardly surprising considering Lazo had initiated several lucrative projects in collaboration with Aye Zaw Win, the son-in-law of then-military dictator General Ne Win. Lazo’s overture eventually opened the floodgates for the rest of the UN, which was soon back in business in Myanmar.

Min Aung Hlaing’s junta has already begun to play the drug suppression card to gain international recognition. If the Global New Times of Myanmar of April 14 is to be believed, Myanmar’s Deputy Minister for Home Affairs Lieutenant General Than Hlaing attended the 64th meeting of the Narcotic Drugs Commission in Vienna from April 12-16 “via video conferencing.”

The event, organized by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), overlooked the fact that Than Hlaing is among 25 junta leaders and other military officers who have been blacklisted and sanctioned by the European Union for what it has termed “serious human rights violations and abuses.”

In a March 30 statement, the UNODC claimed that “drug lords entwined with rebel groups in Myanmar’s ungovernable border zone…the notorious Golden Triangle” are taking advantage of the situation by “pumping record amounts of methamphetamines across Southeast Asia.”

The statement did not mention official or military complicity in the drug trade and the well-established fact that most of the drug trade is run by local militias that are allied with the Myanmar military.

Myanmar protesters carry signs calling on ASEAN not to endorse the junta’s new election plan. Picture: APHR

The question after the ASEAN meeting concerns which other international organizations might be willing to look away from the recent atrocities committed in Myanmar to maintain and pave their particularistic interests in the country.

In an interview with the Jakarta Post on April 27, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi lauded what she apparently termed as “ASEAN’s Myanmar breakthrough.”

But the question now is a breakthrough for whom, the pro-democracy movement, the democracy-suspending junta, or outside groups that see a cynical opportunity in Myanmar’s crisis?