ASEAN must heighten efforts to stem violence by Myanmar military

It is important that efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will lead to the stoppage of the violence perpetrated by Myanmar’s military against the nation’s people. ASEAN should heighten its efforts to resolve the situation through such measures as dispatching a special envoy to Myanmar.

ASEAN held a special summit meeting on the Myanmar situation in Indonesia and issued a chairman’s statement calling for an immediate cessation of the violence, maximum restraint and the start of dialogue among all parties concerned to achieve a peaceful solution.

The summit was also attended by the supreme commander of the Myanmar military, which pushed ahead with a coup in February. This can be said to be a step forward, in that the summit was an opportunity for the international community to directly urge the military leader to exercise restraint, but it is undeniable that the global community has been slow to respond to the problem.

More than 700 people have died as a result of shootings and other actions by the military and police. The military junta continues to detain and crack down on pro-democracy figures, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been ousted from power. The economy has been paralyzed by the public resistance movement and sanctions imposed by Western nations.

ASEAN, which touts noninterference in other countries’ domestic affairs, has begun to take positive steps toward a peaceful solution to the problem, apparently because it is increasingly concerned that its raison d’etre will be called into question if it fails to deal with a crisis that could destabilize the region.

But questions remain over whether the chairman’s statement will actually change the behavior of the military. The statement did not mention the responsibility of the military for causing the turmoil and did not specify who it was targeting with its call for an end to the violence. It also did not include requests for the military to release pro-democracy figures.

At the summit, the supreme commander reportedly stressed the legitimacy of military rule in Myanmar. He may have aimed to trumpet both domestically and internationally that he can travel abroad because he has full power over the country, as well as the fact that he was recognized by ASEAN.

Pro-democracy forces do not accept the legitimacy of military rule and demand that Myanmar be returned to civilian control. As ASEAN did not invite pro-democratic forces to the summit, it cannot escape criticism that it has treated them lightly.

The chairman’s statement states that an ASEAN special envoy will visit Myanmar to meet all parties concerned and mediate dialogue. However, the junta has outlawed the “national unity government” established mainly by pro-democracy forces, and it is unlikely to accept such talks.

The special envoy should enter Myanmar as soon as possible and urge the junta to release Suu Kyi and others, and cease its oppression of them. Unless the envoy takes a strong position, it will not be able to gain trust as a mediator.

If pro-democracy figures cooperate with armed ethnic minority groups to counter the military, there is a high possibility of Myanmar falling into a serious civil war and humanitarian crisis. Western countries and Japan need to support ASEAN and strengthen their involvement in resolving the situation in Myanmar, while urging China and Russia to become involved.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 27, 2021.