Myanmar's anti-junta protesters have not appreciated ASEAN's role in the crisis. Photo: Twitter

Myanmar’s military strongmen have achieved the hitherto unimaginable: they have compelled the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) into taking meaningful action against them nine months after staging a coup d’etat and the country’s descent into chaos.

Excluding State Administration Council (SAC) chair and interim “prime minister” Senior General Min Aung Hlaing from the virtual ASEAN Summit scheduled for October 26-28 is significant in ASEAN diplomatic terms, where “non-interference” in internal affairs is a sacrosanct approach to appeasement.

Following ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus in April, and the long-delayed appointment of a special envoy to Myanmar, Brunei’s Foreign Minister Erywan Yusuf in August, ASEAN’s progress has been slow to non-existent: all due to the stonewalling of the SAC.

The military junta’s release of over 5,000 convicted political prisoners and many awaiting trial might have been a cynical exercise in magnanimity, or a coincidence ahead of an already planned amnesty ahead of the Thadingyut Buddhist holidays.

But Min Aung Hlaing has acknowledged in recent speeches his displeasure with ASEAN, almost in belligerent terms redolent of his criticisms of the United Nations and the West. Now that ASEAN has been shunned, at least temporarily, what new approaches may be used to pressure the SAC?

A first step could be recognizing that ASEAN’s fiasco is also the West’s moral failure.

The West’s thinking it could subcontract the crisis to the regional bloc and, from afar, impose sanctions, strong statements and humanitarian assistance, has contributed to the impasse. The United Nations, United States, European Union, United Kingdom and Australia are all complicit in ASEAN’s failings by failing to build support structures around regional diplomacy.

The UN, through both the outgoing UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener and in the perennially divided Security Council, have been notable disappointments. Despite Burgener’s efforts at shoring up Asia-Pacific states, the SAC had no interest in her visiting, mediating or even being involved beyond an occasional phone call.

UN special envoy to Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener. Photo: AFP

There are two UN approaches to Myanmar: the distracted and the determined. The distracted are everyone around the secretary-general and the Security Council who have multiple global crises to handle and perceive Myanmar as too complex and intransigent, and who failed to provide the special envoy with the required diplomatic capital to bolster her efforts.

Many of these find human rights promotion in the UN system tedious. The UNSG must seek alternatives to the ‘Good Offices’ mission. The efficacy of the current approach is clearly deficient.

The determined UN are those working inside Myanmar trying to carve out some space to operate and address accelerating humanitarian needs. Outgoing acting UN Resident Coordinator Andrew Kirkwood has warned that the country is regressing to the extreme poverty rates and economic desperation of over 20 years ago.

The failure of UN HQ and powerful member states to support efforts at circumventing humanitarian delivery blockades by Myanmar authorities is unconscionable. Criticism of the UN’s failure in Myanmar must be seen as galvanizing a change in approach, or risk another human rights disaster on a much greater scale than seen in the Rakhine state Rohingya refugee crisis in 2017.

The United States has probably exerted the most positive effort, despite major international distractions. That’s been seen in the dramatic reorientation in US$50 million in aid, multiple targeted sanctions, a constant stream of strongly principled statements from the Yangon embassy, and the reported cooperation with China to maintain the status quo of pre-coup Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun at the UN.

The SAC’s imprisonment and trial of American journalist Danny Fenster is further evidence of its disdain for Washington’s public stance.

The State Department has dispatched Counselor Derek Chollett to Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore in part to shore up ASEAN resolve on pressuring Myanmar.

A recent media briefing by senior State Department officials observed that the US had been working hard to assist its allies in ASEAN, “(b)ut given the fact that the military in (Myanmar) has so far been completely unwilling to productively engage with ASEAN to respond to the crisis, and given that they are not fulfilling…the obligations that they themselves (the SAC) have signed up to as part of ASEAN, it seems perfectly appropriate and, in fact, completely justified to – for ASEAN to downgrade Burma’s participation.”

Myanmar soldiers on the march amid an anti-coup protest. Image: Getty via AFP / Hkun Lat

The European Union (EU) has expressed constant support for the efforts of ASEAN and Erywan, with a recent statement saying the EU High Representative “stresses the need for the military to facilitate regular visits to Myanmar by the ASEAN Special Envoy, and for him to be able to engage freely with all he wishes to meet”, including the National Unity Government (NUG). On October 7, the EU Parliament passed a resolution calling for tougher sanctions on Myanmar, including on the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE).

Unfortunately, Myanmar policy is crafted much less by the parliament and more by the EU Council, which has chosen a more measured approach to let ASEAN diplomacy work. Despite some imposition of sanctions and redirection of aid, Brussels is unlikely to take a more rigorous approach, and repercussions from punitive measures could decimate the crucial garment industry and dramatically increase unemployment.

The United Kingdom’s response to the coup has been formulaic, with various sanctions, carefully calibrated criticism, and support for ASEAN’s efforts that have been clearly designed not to derail London’s ingratiation with the region to stimulate greater trade ties and security interests, seen in the recent AUKUS alliance.

This coincides with a marked retreat in the UK’s bilateral aid assistance, a global trend, including a massive 80% cut in humanitarian landmine action and a total cut for support in areas affected in Myanmar. A post-Brexit Britain does not see a post-Suu Kyi Myanmar as a foreign policy priority, but Southeast Asia as a whole is.

Australia must feel particularly let down, having been so ardent in ASEAN’s defense. In August, Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced a set of new funding initiatives called “Partnership for Recovery”, which provide pandemic relief to regional states, a new scholarships initiative, climate change projects, and establishes an “Annual Counter-Terrorism Dialogue”, with loans to Indonesia and the ongoing development assistance program marked the largest support to Southeast Asia since the 2004 tsunami.

Myanmar threats to regional stability were frontloaded. “Australia is gravely concerned about the impact of Myanmar’s Covid-19 crisis, both on the people of Myanmar and the region’s health security”, with Canberra directing $5 million to the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Center) during a lackluster donor pledging conference (Australia’s support was ostentatiously more generous than other donors) and increased funding by AUS$6 million to the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) for assistance to vulnerable households.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne (L) meeting Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyidaw after visiting Rohingya camps in Rakhine State, December 13, 2018. Photo: AFP / Myanmar’s Ministry of Information (MOI)

Payne welcomed the appointment of the ASEAN envoy to Myanmar and urged “the full and timely implementation of the Five Points of Consensus.” Australia’s top diplomat has also weathered criticism from regional lawmakers, with 60 members of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights writing to Payne in September urging greater action.

The SAC has held hostage a prominent Australian, Professor Sean Turnell who served as Aung San Suu Kyi’s principal economic advisor, since the month of the coup. He has gone on trial, with no consular access by Australian diplomats, and reportedly no translator. 

Australia prides itself on its deft diplomacy with Myanmar over many years, especially during the decade of the “democratic transition.” Canberra proudly eschews strong statements and sanctions, prioritizing cooperation, for example with the two phone calls between Tatmadaw Vice Senior General Soe Win and Australian Vice-Admiral David Johnston since the coup.

Yet there have been no discernable positive results from this approach, as Turnell’s continued detention glaringly shows.

The West must reenergize its own moral approach and support ASEAN with more coordinated action, including sanctions architecture, pressure on international arms suppliers to Myanmar, pushing for a substantive change to the work of envoys and the possibility of establishing a Contact Group (not the previous “Group of Friends on Myanmar”, which achieved nothing) to coordinate multiple diplomatic efforts and prioritize humanitarian assistance on several fronts, including through solidarity-based aid groups along the Thailand-Myanmar border.

The West should also find ways to render routine engagement not just with the NUG and the Committee Representing the Pydidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – after all they did win a democratic election nearly a year ago – but representatives with ethnic armed organizations and other emerging political forces in strike committees and broad civil society.

It should not be a diplomatic bridge too far to establish contacts with armed groups such as newly formed anti-coup People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), especially if the West wants to have some influence over their actions. And it would all serve as a constant reminder to the SAC that they have the majority of their own people against them, as well as the majority of the international community.

Protesters wearing signs in support of the People’s Defense Force (PDF) during a demonstration against the military coup in Dawei, May 10, 2021. Photo: AFP via Dawei Watch / Handout

Clearly, ASEAN cannot achieve any progress by itself, and its recent reality jolt could possibly, although unlikely, signal a change of direction.

Or will the “push me, pull you” dynamics of Myanmar-ASEAN relations that have prevailed during other crises, especially in 2007 and 2008, merely resume? Myanmar military leaders have a low cunning for pushing the consensus buttons of ASEAN: will this current impasse result in Min Aung Hlaing threatening to leave the grouping, only to have ASEAN beg him to stay, like a torrid soap opera?

No one inside Myanmar will be deluded by a simple-minded SAC sham, and ASEAN must realize standing up to the strongmen is the only strategy that has any hope of working. To do that, the West has to provide more realistic support, and not succumb to resignation.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on peace, conflict and human rights issues on Myanmar