Ukraine crisis eclipses Myanmar in world’s capacity for attention

ASEAN leaders pose for a family photo with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the ASEAN-U.N. meeting during the ASEAN summit held in Phnom Penh on Nov. 11.

One year has passed since Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) declared a “defensive war” in its armed struggle against the military junta that had staged a coup. The NUG is a government in exile formed by those who are against the military junta. The two sides remain in a state of war and there seems to be no clear path toward resolving the situation. Because of the overwhelming difficulties in reaching a solution, an intervention by the international community has been greatly hoped for. However, interest in Myanmar is waning. One of the most significant reasons is the Russia-Ukraine war.

On Feb. 1 of this year, shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Myanmar military chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the national armed forces, called the NUG “terrorists” in a speech marking the one-year anniversary of the coup. He also made it clear that he would not relent in his actions against the NUG and its supporters. The international community reiterated its call for an immediate end to all acts of violence, with the U.N. Security Council expressing “deep concern.” The U.S. and some European countries, such as Britain, have continued economic sanctions against Myanmar.

When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started on Feb. 24, global focus turned quickly to Ukraine, along with strong criticism against Russia. As the focus of international attention shifted to condemning that war and supporting Ukraine, many in Myanmar who oppose the military junta felt isolated and feared their plight had been forgotten by the outside world. They took to social media with messages such as, “Do not forget Myanmar!” and “What is going on in Ukraine is not different from what is happening in Myanmar.”

Despite these calls for recognition, the Russia-Ukraine war naturally usurped international concern, and the conflict in Myanmar no longer commanded the same level of attention as before. The Russia-Ukraine war highlighted the tensions between the two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia, with its ripple effects impacting the entire world. This does not mean the world has forgotten Myanmar, but that it was inevitable that priority would be given to Ukraine.

Myanmar’s military junta has taken advantage of this situation to tighten its control over the country by force. As the international community’s surveillance has weakened, it has stepped up its suppression of anti-military activists and is steadily preparing to build a military-led political system.

In October, Aung San Suu Kyi — head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and de facto leader of the NLD government before the junta came in — was convicted of corruption charges. They convicted her on 14 separate charges, stacking the sentences to a total of 26 years. The trial was conducted by the junta behind closed doors. If the 77-year-old Suu Kyi spends the next 26 years in prison, her political influence will be eliminated for good.

In July, the junta announced that it had executed four pro-democracy activists, including Suu Kyi’s aides. They had been accused of helping people fight against the military. The recent executions are nothing more than a brutal deterrent to democratic factions that continue to resist the junta.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing is said to have ambitions to become Myanmar’s president. Khin Yi, one of his right-hand men, has been selected as the new chairman of the military’s political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). What is Min Aung Hlaing’s intention? He can assume the presidency if USDP members and appointed military delegates take the majority of seats in the bicameral Union Parliament after a general election that the junta is planning to hold by August 2023. This is why he placed a leader in the USDP who is obedient to him. Rumors have circulated of a USDP divided by internal conflict, with Min Aung Hlaing supporting the group affiliated with Khin Yi.

In response to the escalating series of moves by the junta, the NUG and its supporters have criticized not only the junta, but also the international community to some extent. However, the reaction has been overshadowed by the situation in Ukraine. As a result, it appears the junta has not felt any genuine external pressure.

To overcome this undesirable situation, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is expected to play an active role. While the international community as a whole is caught in the grip of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ASEAN — which has a mission to unite the Southeast Asian region — is being tested as to whether it is a reliable organization that can solve the problems of one of its member countries.

In late April 2021, about three months after the coup, ASEAN convened a Leaders’ Meeting in Jakarta, with Min Aung Hlaing in attendance from Myanmar. It is said that not all members approved his participation, yet they understood the critical need for ASEAN to have direct talks with him at that moment. ASEAN, including Myanmar, finally agreed to a “Five-Point Consensus” addressing the situation, with ASEAN urging Myanmar to implement the agreement.

The five points are:

  • 1. There shall be an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties shall exercise utmost restraint.
  • 2. Constructive dialogue among all parties concerned shall commence to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people.
  • 3. A special envoy of the ASEAN chair shall facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, with the assistance of the secretary general of ASEAN.
  • 4. ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre).
  • 5. A special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.

A year and a half has already passed since the agreement was reached, but so far only the special envoy’s visit to Myanmar has materialized. Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who was appointed as the special envoy, visited Myanmar twice this year, but nothing significant was achieved. Humanitarian assistance also appears to be limited to certain parts of the country.

The principal reason the agreement has not been realized is the junta’s refusal to implement it positively. Regarding Point 1, the junta continues to attack the NUG, as well as the pro-democracy forces and ethnic minority armed groups that are fighting with the NUG, resulting in the deaths of numerous people. The junta’s actions run precisely counter to what is necessary to implement the Five-Point Consensus.

In response to this situation, ASEAN has been refusing to allow military officials from Myanmar to attend their summit meetings since October 2021. A government official from one ASEAN country said: “ASEAN needs to put pressure on Myanmar. If Myanmar’s national army does not listen to ASEAN, ASEAN will exclude Myanmar from our framework.” However, it is difficult to gauge whether ASEAN’s current strategy is yielding results toward positive progress.

Some democratic factions, like the NUG in Myanmar, and some of ASEAN’s member countries, have expressed concern about legitimizing the junta’s rule in Myanmar if ASEAN allows junta officials to attend summit meetings. This concern is understandable because the junta will no doubt claim to have been recognized as a representative of Myanmar if they are given permission to attend the summit. There seems to be no perfect way to deal with this situation, but it will be necessary for ASEAN to maintain a channel of communication with the junta in some way.

Some say Myanmar’s national army has been getting impatient because it has failed to take full governing control of the country even now, 20 months after the coup. It is believed that the military power of the national army far surpasses that of the NUG side. However, the national army has been struggling to fight against the NUG, especially on local battlefields. The presence of ethnic minority armed groups fighting together with the NUG seems to be a major factor. These groups have a long history of conflict with the national army and understand how to fight. Some sources give either side the edge in defeating the other.

The military junta in Myanmar is now working to strengthen its relationship with Russia, which continues its invasion of Ukraine. Last July, Min Aung Hlaing made his second visit to Russia since the coup and is believed to have secured promises of increased military support. The fighting in Myanmar may escalate.

At its Nov. 11 summit meeting, ASEAN decided to set a deadline for Myanmar to fulfill the Five-Point Consensus. (However, the date of the deadline has not been decided yet.) Although it is unlikely that the junta will respond on time, it is critically important for ASEAN to keep closely monitoring and engaging with the situation in Myanmar in various ways. With both the military junta and the NUG side showing less willingness to sit down for dialogue, it is clear that one effective way to improve the situation would be for countries geopolitically close to Myanmar to remain engaged with them. Japan, which can take a different approach from the West, may also be able to take steps that will lead to a breakthrough in the situation. Japan was earlier expected to solve the Myanmar issue because it had a strong communication channel with the national army. Although it does not seem to be helping so far, Japan still has room to do something. It is essential that every party take a persistent approach to the situation in Myanmar, but everyday people in Myanmar wishing for peace cannot continue to wait, as there is a deep fear that the junta will end up dominating the country as it wishes.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Norimasa Tahara

Tahara is a deputy editor in the International News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.