ASEAN is in trouble. Again.
The foreign ministers of the ten southeast Asian nation alliance are meeting this week, having been unable to move forward on the crisis in Myanmar for months. The rest of the world has been diplomatically bowing to the notion of “ASEAN centrality,” because that’s what ASEAN says it wants, even though it seems to have frozen in the face of a humanitarian and existential emergency. “ASEAN’s future will be decided in Myanmar” was the headline for a Foreign Policy magazine opinion piece by regional expert Evan Laksamana.
At the ASEAN “emergency” summit, held a full two months after the coup, the chairman’s statement set out the regional group’s position and plan. The claim for “Centrality” made most sense in the part of the statement about dealing with “external partners.” ASEAN as a regional organization provides ballast when dealing with big powers like China, the US and Russia, they are likely to pay more attention to the regional bloc of 661 million people, with its market power and strategic location, than to any one of its members negotiating on its own.
When it comes to dealing with its own members it’s a strangely different story, in spite of its explicit aspirations. “We acknowledged ASEAN’s positive and constructive role in facilitating a peaceful solution in the interest of the people of Myanmar and their livelihoods, and therefore agreed to the ‘Five-Point Consensus’ attached to this Chairman’s Statement,” read the chairman’s statement. It’s difficult to make sense of these words, given that the very perpetrators of the crimes that caused the need for a peaceful solution signed up to the statement and have only escalated the violence since.
The leaders’ consensus, agreed by Myanmar’s coup leaders, were: an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar; to start constructive dialogue among all parties concerned; to appoint a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair to mediate; to provide humanitarian assistance and that special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar.
It’s not a good look for ASEAN and its centrality that not a single one of its Five Points has been taken up.
Myanmar’s generals are holding the rest of the region hostage to their appalling crimes against their own people, which are in turn threatening to shift the global center of gravity for the coronavirus pandemic to our neighborhood and bring disaster to the region. I don’t think that’s what ASEAN meant by Centrality.
Make no mistake, the situation in Myanmar is a horror show. The Burma Human Rights Network has just launched its report “Before Our Eyes,” in which it has carefully documented over 300 criminal acts committed by the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw, against the Burmese people, in the course of its brutal crackdown on civilians protesting the military coup. BHRN also documented the growing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, caused by the Tatmadaw blocking critical humanitarian aid from reaching vulnerable populations and its failure to manage a deadly third wave of the COVID pandemic sweeping through the country.
BHRN escalates the urgency of the need for a reaction. It analyses these acts as potential crimes against humanity and finds that there are reasonable grounds to conclude that the Tatmadaw has committed crimes against humanity against the Burmese people, namely murder, imprisonment and other severe deprivations of liberty, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts and persecution based on political identity.
“It’s not a case of a renegade commander using particularly ruthless tactics on peaceful protesters. This is widespread. It’s systematic. It is clearly, in my view, crimes against humanity being committed before our very eyes,” is how Tom Andrews, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has put it.
I was asked to host the launch of the report, authored by Erin Farrell Rosenberg, and reviewed by Ambassador Stephen Rapp. Their analysis went beyond regional or even global politics and made it absolutely plain that the weight of the evidence against the Tatmadaw is overwhelming and that it will prove to be the basis of eventual international criminal cases against the perpetrators.
It is perhaps in that context that the coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing, the next day declared himself to be the Prime Minister of a caretaker government in an attempt to legitimize his power grab and evade justice. Perhaps it is also in that context that governments in Singapore, Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bandar Seri Bagawan, Hanoi, Vientiane, Phnom Penh need to look at their own actions. Is ASEAN to be a haven for those who commit crimes against humanity itself? Or could it imagine a different role for itself that takes its declarations, principles and commitments seriously and do something better for people gripped in a humanitarian emergency? A friend in central Myanmar told me there is not enough food, not enough medicine and not enough health care. Another friend’s family lost both grandmothers in a week and doesn’t know a single family that isn’t affected by COVID-19’s spread.
Shockingly, in complete opposition to the rest of the international community, the Tatmadaw’s strategy seems to be to weaponize the pandemic. At least 12 doctors have been killed by the military since February, while the World Health Organization has recorded at least 240 attacks on Myanmar’s health care workers, ambulances and medical facilities. The junta has arrested the head of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, who was appointed by the former government. The security forces have also occupied dozens of hospitals across the country, in violation of international law; many people cannot access health care due to coup-related curfews and high medical costs, with hundreds of COVID-19 patients reportedly dying at home. Security officials are arresting doctors and nurses accused of supporting the civil disobedience movement.
While the rest of the world is trying to restrict its spread, Myanmar’s coup leaders are wilfully helping COVID-19 ravage the population like wildfire. Scientists have shown how the virus does not respect borders. By doing nothing, governments are putting their own populations at risk.
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