Myanmar military outmaneuvers ASEAN neighbors

Myanmar military outmaneuvers ASEAN neighbors

Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (L) gestures as he is welcomed upon his arrival ahead of the ASEAN leaders' summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, on April 24, 2021. (Indonesian Presidential Palace photo via REUTERS)
Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (L) gestures as he is welcomed upon his arrival ahead of the ASEAN leaders' summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, on April 24, 2021. (Indonesian Presidential Palace photo via REUTERS)
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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is trying to play peacemaker in the ongoing dispute between the people of Myanmar and their democratically elected representatives on the one side, and the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, which took power in a coup on Feb. 1, on the other. Their efforts so far have been a stark failure.
ASEAN has had, since its inception, a policy of noninterference in the domestic affairs of its member countries. It has historically gone to great lengths to uphold this policy. Until, that is, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar over the past decade forced ASEAN members, both outside of the official structures of the bloc’s bureaucracy and also within it, to increasingly pressure Myanmar on the issue. This is not least because most ASEAN member countries were affected by the waves of refugees fleeing Myanmar as the country cracked down ever more intensely on this long-marginalized group of people.
Since the February coup, ASEAN members will have rightly feared fresh violence and instability in the country, including a ratcheting up of long-simmering ethnic conflicts that could create fresh refugee outflows from the country. Self-interest, as much as humanitarian concern, forced them to try to bring the Tatmadaw to the negotiation table with the pro-democracy protesters and the previously elected representatives of the people of Myanmar.
At first, there was some hope that pressure from ASEAN might move the dial on the internal dynamics of the growing conflict over the coup in Myanmar. The leaders of the Tatmadaw dutifully attended last month’s peace conference organized by ASEAN and played the part of a responsible party to the discussions. But then, as soon as he got back to Myanmar, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing said that the proposal that came out of those discussions would only be “positively considered” after the country’s “stability” is secured.

The stance of the Tatmadaw has not changed at all and it will not budge on any issue until the protesters give up and go home.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

In other words, the stance of the Tatmadaw has not changed at all and it will not budge on any issue until the protesters give up and go home. And, in the unlikely scenario that the protesters would be naive enough to do so, the Tatmadaw has not in fact committed to taking any action beyond “considering” the peace proposals.
On the other hand, ASEAN met with Aung Hlaing as the leader and representative of Myanmar, which is to say that the junta can claim that the summit legitimized its position, at least implicitly. It is difficult to see how much weight such a claim would carry, and who might be swayed by it, but it nevertheless looks like the ASEAN countries have been played. The Tatmadaw did not attend the summit to engage with the peace process proposed by the hosts. It did so to perform the part of a legitimate government of a member state in an internationally recognized forum.
But perhaps the other ASEAN countries can learn from this slap in the face. They are not dealing with honest actors, acting in good faith. And when words fail, action is the only recourse left. Given their historical commitment to noninterference, it is unlikely that the ASEAN club will move swiftly or forcefully in retaliation. But as instability persists in Myanmar, and as the likelihood of an all-out civil war in the country grows, ASEAN members will increasingly feel the pressure to act. As to what they can do: They can sanction the junta as illegitimate and refuse any further diplomatic contact with it; they can boot Myanmar out of the ASEAN club altogether; they can impose trade embargoes; and they can offer various degrees of support to the protesters and the recently announced Government of National Unity, from diplomatic to financial and even pledging to back it in any military confrontation should things come to that.
Such a clear statement of intent from the ASEAN countries would be most helpful in steering the military away from the path of certain confrontation. But, alas, given the default diplomatic stance of these countries, this is very unlikely to happen. Things will thus likely get worse in Myanmar before they get better.

 Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim

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