The US and China are competing for supremacy in Southeast Asia but the region is just as engaged with middle powers. Photo: Agencies

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SINGAPORE – The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) holds an in-person summit in Jakarta today, the first concerted international effort to address the crisis in Myanmar. Regional leaders will reportedly try to persuade Myanmar’s junta to agree to a cessation of hostilities to allow international aid to be delivered to the turmoil-hit nation.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s junta chief and key engineer of the February 1 putsch, will controversially be in attendance, a move panned by critics who see the invitation to sit alongside other ASEAN leaders as tantamount to lending legitimacy to his democracy-suspending regime, particularly in light of the recent establishment of a parallel authority by pro-democracy forces.

Ousted elected lawmakers, leaders of anti-coup protests and ethnic minority organizations announced on April 16 a National Unity Government (NUG), which says it is the country’s legitimate interim authority. It has requested international recognition and called for an invitation to the ASEAN meeting in place of the junta leader, but to no avail.

Asia Times’ correspondent and Southeast Asia Insider editor Nile Bowie reported on expectations for the summit and what it could potentially achieve in light of Myanmar’s military rulers persistent brutality despite appeals from neighbors to refrain from violence. He shared his thoughts on the situation in this week’s Q&A.

How likely is a breakthrough at the ASEAN summit in Jakarta?

There is no doubt that ASEAN’s leaders understand that the grouping’s credibility and centrality are at stake, so a concerted effort to de-escalate the situation and establish a humanitarian pause is expected. Whether or not any actual progress can be made, despite the best of intentions, is an altogether different matter. What matters is whether Min Aung Hlaing is willing to listen to his neighbors, who collectively stand to lose if the Tatmadaw’s hellish repression persists unabated.

The putsch leader will be going to Jakarta to make his case, however divorced from reality, that his regime is acting to support democracy. He will likely seek to assure ASEAN that new elections will be held and that the country will return to some form of civilian rule, though the military has said it could extend its ongoing state of emergency order for as long as two years. None of ASEAN’s member states have explicitly called for the outcome of the November election to be respected, despite their calls for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release.

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

ASEAN will be there to provide a ladder if the general wishes to climb down, but there is no indication that is the case. If a pause in hostilities can be achieved to allow the delivery of humanitarian supplies, that would be more than any other organization has been able to achieve so far.

The appointment of a special envoy, one of the proposals reportedly on the meeting’s agenda, would also be a promising sign. If these relatively modest goals can be realized, it would at least be a start. But the dynamics of the situation suggest hard-won progress could be very easily rolled back, much like Myanmar’s own recent history. 

What happens if ASEAN diplomacy fails to move the needle on the situation?

The fear among many regional analysts and observers is that ASEAN’s failure to act could create an opening for outside powers to intervene in some way, which would undermine the bloc’s centrality and collective autonomy. The more immediate concern, of course, is a humanitarian emergency that creates waves of refugees and undermines the region’s, and especially neighboring Thailand’s, management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

ASEAN is reputed for putting stability and economic development above political rights, so the prospect of a Syria-like conflict in their region is extremely troubling.

In terms of how diplomacy may progress in the face of an unchanging status quo ante in Myanmar, the question of the NUG’s international recognition will be a critical factor. Should the parallel government manage to broaden its support among opposition forces and clearly emerge as an authority, it is reasonable to assume that Western democracies could extend recognition, though most analysts don’t see ASEAN opting to do so.

Regional foreign ministers will surely maintain channels of communication with the NUG, but will continue to deal with the de facto party in power and refrain from actions that will isolate the junta.

Protesters hold posters with the image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration against the military coup in Naypyidaw on February 28, 2021. Photo: AFP/Stringer

What regional watchers should closely observe are the NUG’s appeals for international intervention, and whether there are specific calls for military intervention. What’s clear is that the longer the crisis persists without a resolution, the more likely it is that the use of force will be one of the options on the table, so to speak.

That could come in the form of US missile strikes on military targets, ostensibly to coax the junta to the negotiating table, a scenario that Asia Times contributor Anthony Davis explored this week in his fascinating report.

To be sure, few expect an escalation of that magnitude given Washington’s rather uninvolved approach to the crisis thus far, apart from leveling new sanctions at the coup-makers. There isn’t a convincing reason to assume that “Tomahawk diplomacy” would yield a desirable effect in the circumstances. Moreover, it’s difficult to imagine that the US would be able to bring its Quad allies, such as India and Japan, on board.

Major power intervention would be opposed by ASEAN and would more likely hasten Myanmar’s descent into failed statehood, which should underscore the importance of ASEAN’s push for diplomacy in spite of its poor track record in addressing regional humanitarian crises involving Myanmar in the recent past.

What are the NUG’s prospects for winning out and succeeding the Tatmadaw as Myanmar’s next government? 

As the junta resorts to brutal measures to reassert its rule, it is not a given that the regime is going to be able to stabilize the country in the medium to long term. Myanmar’s military has historically been seen as the glue binding the nation together through seven decades of ethnic armed resistance and continual internal war, though it has clearly reached the point of diminishing returns.

By all credible accounts, the NUG has broad support among the population. It has also brought together ethnic armed groups with the aim of establishing a federal army and a federal democratic system.

The Karen National Union (KNU) rebel army has sided with the new National Unity Government. Image: AFP/Handout

While there are several practical, military and logistical obstacles that threaten to overwhelm and undermine the resistance forces, a war on many fronts would test the Tatmadaw’s hold over the country. The dominant assumption is that the regime is unlikely to be defeated militarily given its much larger fighting force and technical capabilities.

The NUG aims to stretch the Tatmadaw’s forces so they gradually become undersupplied and is betting that cracks in the junta’s leadership will appear while persistent civil disobedience undermines discipline in the police, leading to desertions and defections, and finally the collapse of the junta.

A military victory by the NUG’s federal forces is by any measure a long shot. But the Tatmadaw has historically never been able to control all of Myanmar, and the ethnic armed groups that have now coalesced together have proven in the past that they can fight to a stalemate. As such, Myanmar is on course for a major escalation of the civil wars that it has experienced since independence, which will be deadly, destabilizing and unwinnable for both sides.