Yanghee Lee: ASEAN must use weekend summit to save Myanmar

April 23rd, 2021  •  Category News

Yanghee Lee writes in Nikkei Asia Review about how the international community can and must engage with the National Unity Government of Myanmar

Yanghee Lee is a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, and a founding member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar.

In the less than three months since the Myanmar military seized power in an illegal coup, it has already driven the country to the brink of collapse.

More than 700 people, including dozens of children, have been killed by security forces. The economy is in ruins. Healthcare and other basic services have ground to a halt, while conflict is escalating in the ethnic borderlands. There are ominous signs that Myanmar could become a failed state.

At the same time, Myanmar is gradually fading from global headlines. There is a dangerous sense that the coup is becoming normalized, even accepted, as the new status quo. The international community must act now to prevent this from happening, starting with the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta this weekend.

As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar from 2014 to 2020, I saw the best and worst of the country. I witnessed the cautious hope after the 2015 elections when Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy swept to power, ending decades of outright military rule.

Then the genocidal violence against the Rohingya followed from 2016, orchestrated by the military but facilitated by an acquiescent civilian government. Myanmar once again became an international pariah — a status now cemented by the military takeover on Feb. 1. The speed with which the state has since been pushed toward collapse is remarkable.

Hundreds of thousands have bravely taken to the streets across the country in defiance of the military. They have used humor and nonviolent tactics but have been brutally suppressed by the security forces. Earlier this month, soldiers fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns indiscriminately during a pre-dawn raid on a protest camp in Bago.

At least 82 people were killed — the deadliest single massacre since the coup. Thousands of others have been arrested, detained, or simply disappeared. Bodies of those killed have been desecrated and stripped of valuables; this is a military that respects no one, living or dead.

Meanwhile, much of Myanmar has ground to a halt, not least because everyone from doctors to train drivers have joined the nationwide civil disobedience movement. Basic services, including health care and education, are barely functioning. An enormous humanitarian crisis looms with the cost of food and other basic goods rocketing.

Anti-coup school teachers flash three-fingers salute during a demonstration in Mandalay on Mar. 3.   © AP

Equally worrying is that armed conflict is escalating in the border provinces. The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, has wasted little time in punishing those ethnic armed groups that have voiced support for the protesters. In late March, for example, the military launched airstrikes in Karen State for the first time in 20 years, killing 18 people and driving thousands to flee into neighboring Thailand. Humanitarian agencies privately fear that such spillover effects of the coup will create a regional crisis, in which hundreds of thousands could be forced to flee into China, India and Thailand.

There is no time to waste. It is crucial that there is no international recognition of the military regime, including by ASEAN at this weekend’s summit. Instead, the international community should engage with the newly announced National Unity Government (NUG) as the legitimate government of the country.

This historic body brings together elected parliamentarians who have lived in exile or in hiding since the coup, other ethnic parties and civil society representatives, although the lack of Muslim representatives including Rohingya is disappointing. In order for a truly united federal government to succeed, inclusivity must be prioritized. No one must be left behind or excluded.

The NUG speaks to a broader trend since the coup: the country increasingly uniting against a common enemy in the military. While it is impossible to speak of silver linings in a situation this dire, it has been encouraging to see a thaw in relations between ethnic groups.

On social media, people have even apologized for their past hate speech against the Rohingya, and against me personally because I used the name “Rohingya” while speaking about their plight. This would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. This is the interethnic dialogue I tried to promote as Special Rapporteur. It offers a hopeful vision for what a future Myanmar could be, free of military interference. But to get there, the NUG and the people taking to the streets need international support more than ever.

ASEAN must lead the way by inviting the NUG to the summit and opening channels of communication. With the support of the people through their elected representatives and representative organizations, the NUG is the legitimate government of Myanmar.

States and donors must find ways to ensure desperately needed humanitarian assistance reaches urban as well as ethnic areas where members of the democracy movement have fled from the military. Local networks already have decades of experience responding to the humanitarian crises caused by the Tatmadaw’s brutality and can direct these efforts.

At the same time, the U.N. Security Council, individual states and groups of states can all apply pressure on the military by supporting what we, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, call the three cuts strategy: cutting the weapons, cash and impunity. Together, with these combined efforts, the international community can support the peoples of Myanmar as they fight to free themselves from tyranny. But we must act now, before it is too late.