International bodies making excuses for Myanmar junta
Every dictatorship and military junta ends up with its own international supporters. They do its dirty work in ways they believe they can justify. These are the countries that supply them with weapons or hydrocarbons, the firms that exploit government-induced poverty in order to take advantage of cheap labor and the international organizations that decide that — tyranny aside — special consideration is better than confrontation.
This time, the junta is the military regime in Myanmar, which overthrew the civilian government in 2021 and is currently fighting a vicious civil war with an ethnic cleansing dimension against all comers. And the Association of Southeast Asian Nations believes remote diplomacy is better than supporting the civilian population fighting against the regime.
ASEAN describes itself as a meeting place of nations steered by shared values. But those shared values do not appear to be up to much, according to a new leaked document obtained by Fortify Rights. According to the campaign group, the chair of the ASEAN conference, Cambodia, produced the document following an emergency meeting of group foreign ministers in Jakarta on Oct. 27. This was over a year into the coup and civil war in Myanmar and amounts to an intention to support and even rehabilitate the junta.
Among more general points, the document suggests that formal blocks on the Myanmar junta’s participation in ASEAN events should be kept to a minimum, with the intention of “(maintaining) the status quo” in all ministerial meetings except the showiest summits and foreign ministers’ gatherings.
Another point commits ASEAN to bridging the gap between its own negotiating tack — known as the Five-Point Consensus — and the regime’s own nominal peace plan, the Five-Point Roadmap: all as if the international body and the junta, which rules a part of a country seized by force, are of equal weight, value and legitimacy.
All of this is done with the language almost of resignation. The document reads: “ASEAN is safer and stronger with Myanmar being part of the family.” This is almost a shrug of the shoulders. Because Myanmar ought to be inside the tent, the leaders are almost saying it is worth accepting the pretense of whichever armed group most effectively claims to be ruling Myanmar at any given time.
This is not realpolitik, it is the abdication of responsibility to make choices and to apply their meanings plainly and with determination.
ASEAN believes remote diplomacy is better than supporting the civilian population fighting against the regime.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
If the junta has done the things that ASEAN believes it has done — the things that merit its leaders being banned from ASEAN meetings — the junta cannot claim to rule Myanmar or to serve as the Burmese people’s legitimate representative. And yet this is not what the document says.
Let us remember, the generals at the head of the regime are the same men who ordered the genocide of the Rohingya minority in 2017 and since. This is a group that not only killed thousands and expelled hundreds of thousands, but that also actively participated in Myanmar’s generation of a region-wide refugee crisis, one which placed burdens on all of Myanmar’s neighbors and seriously affected domestic economic and political security in Bangladesh.
The generals have fought a brutal civil war since the overthrow of that civilian government — largely inaccessible to international media and observers. Many thousands of people have died, with activists and organizers often being singled out for intimidation or murder. Human rights organizations have characterized the junta’s military campaigns as intended almost to exterminate the vestiges of opposition within the country, be they from the leftover members of the now-overthrown government, other political movements or from Myanmar’s more local and ethnic political and self-defense organizations.
A military regime engaged in mass slaughter is not a friend or an ally. It is a caged beast trapped in a murderous game of its own making.
This is not a group of men who can be trusted to promote Asian solidarity or stability, yet their wishes are likely to be accepted and humored by a group that is hardly duty bound to accommodate men of violence at the summits of diplomacy.
ASEAN and organizations like it have options: there is a national unity government that has been organized in opposition to the junta. It is not perfect and it includes some who are compromised by past collaboration. But it has as much right to be considered by international bodies to represent Myanmar as the men who are currently clinging on to power by grip on the sword alone.
Rather than appeasing the regime in the vain pursuit of continuity, ASEAN ought to be brave and show resolve. Alternatives to junta rule exist and ASEAN ought to be at the forefront of developing them.
• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and the author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017).