After eight months of being played by Myanmar’s murderous junta, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has finally put its foot down. The decision to bar junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing from attending this week’s Asean Summit was as welcome as it was surprising. It must not only be a permanent decision by the regional bloc, but the start of a new, assertive approach that necessarily leads to direct engagement with the National Unity Government (NUG).
Up until now, Asean has been made to look impotent by Min Aung Hlaing since his coup in February. The junta leader’s flagrant disregard for the five-point consensus agreed with Southeast Asian leaders in April, and stonewalling of the Asean Special Envoy to Myanmar, was a source of humiliation for the regional bloc. But the decision to exclude Min Aung Hlaing from the summits to be held in Brunei from tomorrow (Oct 26) restores some of Asean’s credibility, while dealing a serious blow to the illegal junta’s quest for legitimacy.
Long derided as a toothless tiger, this unprecedented decision has shown that there are limits to what even Asean will tolerate.
CRACKS IN CLAIM TO LEADERSHIP
It has also exposed cracks in Min Aung Hlaing’s leadership. The junta has long painted itself as impervious to international pressure and yet, within hours of Asean’s rebuke, Min Aung Hlaing ordered the release of 5,600 people who had been illegally detained, many tortured, by his forces. Of course, this was nothing but a cynical ploy. No sooner than footage of weeping family members being reunited with their loved ones outside the prison gates were beamed across state television and social media, the arrests started again.
Nevertheless, Asean has made it clear that Min Aung Hlaing and his illegal junta are devoid of legitimacy on the international stage. Outside of Russia, China and a handful of other countries, Min Aung Hlaing is a pariah, shunned and isolated and, it seems, desperate.
Inside Myanmar, the junta is at an impasse. After eight months of widespread civilian resistance to its attempted rule, it is incapable of establishing ordinary government functions or asserting even a semblance of control.
Min Aung Hlaing’s only playbook is more brutality. The junta’s so-called clearance operations in resistance strongholds are escalating in intensity and a major offensive in the northwest of Myanmar – on a scale unseen before – is coming. If it is not stopped, the impact on the region will be catastrophe.
Months of inaction by Asean and the international community has already cost countless lives. Min Aung Hlaing has shown time and again that he is beyond reasoning and willing to commit egregious crimes in his ruthless quest for power. Now must be a turning point for resolving the crisis Min Aung Hlaing caused eight months ago when he moved to overthrow Myanmar’s democratically elected government in a naked grab for power.
Asean must not revert on its decision to exclude the junta chief from future meetings. Excluding Min Aung Hlaing from this week’s Asean summit only makes sense if it is a norm-setting act, not just a whim of the moment.
THE NEXT STEP
With Min Aung Hlaing out, the logic follows that the National Unity Government should take its rightful place as representative of Myanmar. Having finally taken a stand, Asean must consolidate its position and work with the NUG and its ethnic allies to find a way out of this crisis. Asean must recognise the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar and invite its representative to the summits. Asean member states must work with the NUG and its partners to open cross-border supply lines. Millions of people in so-called liberated areas under the control of ethnic armed groups are in desperate need of life-saving humanitarian aid, including COVID-19 vaccines. Many more are in the country’s heartlands, access to them held to ransom by the junta, so Asean must continue to step up the pressure.
No longer beholden to the obsolete principle of non-interference, Asean leadership, when it convenes tomorrow, must finally start acting in accordance with those other principles enshrined in its founding charter: respect for fundamental freedoms, promotion and protection of human rights and the promotion of social justice as well as peace, security and stability in the region.
Together with the NUG, the true representatives of the people of Myanmar, Asean must immediately begin implementing the five-point consensus and start mapping a road out of this junta-made crisis.
The stakes are too high not to – for the millions suffering in Myanmar, for Asean’s own credibility, and for our region’s future.