OPINION - Political calculations to settle Myanmar crisis
Myanmar’s military coup has put Association of Southeast Asian Nation at crossroads
The writer teaches at the Center for Peace and Defense Studies (PSPP), University of Al-Azhar Indonesia.
Since the military forcibly seized control and forced the exit of the National League for Democracy (NLD) from the government on Feb. 1, the socio-political conditions in Southeast Asian nation Myanmar have again moved towards uncertainty.
The coup, led by the head of Tatmadaw -- the national armed forces – Gen. Min Aung Hlaing shortly after Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD won the election, has become a nightmare for people in the country.
Thousands of people were forced to flee to the borders of neighboring countries. Some also asked for protection from armed militia groups who have been confronting the military junta since 1948.
In fact, in the last decade, democracy in Myanmar had made significant progress. However, the coup tradition had not completely disappeared from the politics of the country of Golden Pagoda – one of the most sacred gilded Buddhist pagodas located in Yangon.
Until now, the wave of protests against military coups has continued. More than 560 people have been killed by the national army. The highest daily fatalities were seen on March 27, when 141 people were killed.
Ironically, this happened when the Tatmadaw celebrated Armed Forces Day with a military parade, while more than 5,000 people were detained, including Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy opposition.
Instead of subsiding, the wave of protests has spread as people from all backgrounds, be that government workers, educators, health workers, laborers, and workers in Tatmadaw's defense equipment factories, have joined the resistance movement against the coup.
Some armed militia groups on the border are also taking part in the anti-coup movement. The military junta declared a "ceasefire" against them, but not against unarmed demonstrators.
Myanmar has a history of coups
Throughout its decades of independence, Myanmar has struggled with military coups several times. However, this time it was staged when Tatmadaw was opening up to cooperate with the West. Did the Tatmadaw miscalculate?
While defending the coup against Aung San Suu Kyi's leadership and Myint Swe's government, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said it has a constitutional mandate to save democracy.
Aung San Suu Kyi was accused of fraud in the November 2020 election, political bribery, violations of health protocols and the natural disaster management law, and accusations of leaking state secrets due to her proximity to China.
However, the coup, which was expected to last for a short time, has snowballed into a resistance movement making Myanmar chaotic and unstable.
Internally, the wave of protests has spread widely, people have fled across borders to seek refuge in neighboring countries.
Externally, the international community has reacted to the military junta's violence. Companies connected to the junta were frozen, foreign investment was stopped, and several countries called their diplomats back. Criticism also came from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union, the US, and the UN Security Council. Russia and China also expressed regrets about the military junta's repressive acts.
Several countries in mainland Southeast Asia, commonly called Indochina during the Cold War era, including Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, are indeed no strangers to coups in their politics.
Since independence from British colonialism in 1948, Myanmar experienced a coup for the first time in 1962 when Tatmadaw under Gen. Ne Win overthrew the civilian government. After that, the political situation continued to change dynamically and coups occurred again in 1988 and 1990.
Democratization led by the NLD is deeply rooted in the socio-political structure of the Myanmar civil government. This is what caused the resistance wave to get bigger and bigger.
Possibilities in Myanmar
Moreover, the coup occurred at a time when the people of Myanmar were facing an economic crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Again, did General Min miscalculate?
Several possibilities could occur following the current crisis in Myanmar.
First, the military junta may be subjected to international pressure to stop the violence. However, this does not mean that the anti-coup wave will automatically stop since the main demands for pro-democracy are to cancel the coup and reject the re-election being offered by the junta.
Will the military junta fulfill these two demands? As a consequence of this possibility, Min Aung Hlaing could be prosecuted in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for military crimes. Not only crimes that he has committed since the Feb. 1 coup, but also human rights violations and crimes committed against ethnic Rohingya.
Second, the military junta regime maintains its stance against anti-coup protesters by using military means. Due to this, the violence will continue, and casualties will also continue to rise.
This would encourage the crystallization of resistance against the regime, including from around 17 ethnic armed militia groups with more than 20,000 members.
Of course, this could also eventually force the intervention of international powers and affect regional security.
Third, Myanmar is trapped in the threat of civil war. The climate of the current coup is different from what happened in the Cold War era. Civil society's support for democratization led by the NLD in the past decade will determine the future of the crisis.
As the only regional organization that brings together countries in Southeast Asia, ASEAN was tested for its stance and role in facing a crisis in Myanmar.
Myanmar crises reposition ASEAN
Failure to respond to the crisis will add to the burdens and challenges of the bloc, especially to fully realize the ideals of the ASEAN Political-Security Community, which was set in 2015.
In 2014, the country's excellent progress in democratization had prompted support from member countries for Myanmar to assume the chairmanship of ASEAN.
The Myanmar crisis has repositioned the bloc at a "crossroads." On the one hand, all member countries are bound by the non-intervention principle as a code of conduct.
On the other hand, the crisis in Myanmar cannot be ignored since the impact will affect neighboring countries, including Indonesia. So, multilateral diplomacy is the main way to resolve conflict.
The diplomatic steps taken by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi have been very well taken. The country's approach to ASEAN countries, China, Russia, and the UN shows its "free-and-active" foreign policy stance.
As a backbone of Southeast Asia, Indonesia has a big stake in the democratization of Myanmar. Learning from the Middle East crisis such as Syria, which affected not only immediate neighbors but far away in Europe as well due to the surge of immigrants, Indonesia needs to encourage reconciliation among actors involved in the crisis since it has a track record in successfully integrating the values of diversity into its national identity.
However, these efforts must still be carried out through multilateral diplomacy, both at the ASEAN and at the UN.
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