ASEAN DOWNGRADES MYANMAR PARTICIPATION STATUS: Will the military junta become more reasonable now?

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It must have been a rude awakening for the Burmese military coup-maker junta that ASEAN has taken a rather hardliner stance by downgrading its participation status which it hasn’t anticipated.

38 and 39 ASEAN summits
38 and 39 ASEAN summits

On October 15, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in its emergency meeting decided to only invite a non-political representative from Myanmar but not the coup leader Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing to its regional summit which was held recently from 26 to 28 October.  By all means it was  an unusually bold step for the consensus-driven bloc, which traditionally favours a policy of engagement and non-interference.

On October 16, the junta’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs aired its disapproval in its statement: “Myanmar is extremely disappointed and strongly objected (to) the outcomes of the emergency foreign ministers meeting, as the discussions and decision on Myanmar’s representation issue was done without consensus and was against the objectives of ASEAN.”

Concerning the row junta spokesman Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun told the BBC Burmese news service: “The foreign interventions can also be seen here,” adding “before, we learned that some envoys from some countries met with US foreign affairs and received pressure from EU.”

Earlier, Zaw Min Tun told the media that ASEAN was only bargaining to obtain its prescribed position, somewhat sarcastically.

But in fact it was just implementing what the junta has already agreed upon.

The ASEAN’s five-point consensus that was agreed on April 24 at the summit includes – an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.

The ASEAN Envoy Erywan Yusof  insistence upon meeting all the stakeholders if he was to visit the country to carry out his mediation role was rejected by the junta saying that individuals charged with treason won’t be included, meaning Aung San Suu Kyi and the dethroned-President Win Myint both leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) won’t be allowed to meet the Envoy.

The Envoy cancelled his visit reasoning that the visit would be meaningless without meeting all the conflict parties or without the military granting him access to “all parties concerned.”

On October 25, the junta issued a statement that it will not accept a “downgraded” role at an upcoming summit of  ASEAN.

The invitation, which was extended by current ASEAN chair Brunei to Chan Aye, Myanmar’s highest-ranking diplomat, denies the country “equal rights enjoyed by other ASEAN member states,” the regime said in its statement.

Speaking to local media outlet One News on Monday, junta spokesperson Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun accused ASEAN of violating the regime’s “legitimate position” and added that some member states “do not treat the country equally.”

“They must invite our head of state because the summit is about meetings between the heads of member states,” he said, according to the Myanmar Now recent report.

On October 26, the junta’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued another statement saying that it wasn’t boycotting the ASEAN but rather complaining the measure taken by the ASEAN which is not according to the charter.

The two last paragraphs writes:

“Myanmar’s absence at the ASEAN Summits due to denial for the Head of State or Head of Government or his Ministerial level representation, does not intend to show its protest against ASEAN or to boycott ASEAN. Myanmar rather exercises its rights as an ASEAN Member State in accordance with the principles enshrined in ASEAN Charter while demonstrating its willingness to consult with ASEAN Member States.”

“Since Myanmar joined the ASEAN, Myanmar has been respecting and complying with the principles and procedures enshrined in the ASEAN Charter in contribution to ASEAN Community Building process. Myanmar will continue to constructively cooperate with ASEAN, including in implementing the five-point consensus. “

The statement also points out: “Furthermore, Myanmar has made it known its inability to accept the decision taken by the Emergency ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held on 15 October 2021 as it was not based on ASEAN consensus as required by the ASEAN Charter in making decisions and thus Myanmar made reservation on the decision taken in that meeting.”

ASEAN leaders were also of the opinion in general that the junta has to accommodate the five-point consensus if it still wants to make use of the organization, even though it is not clear if official legitimacy will be granted to the junta.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn Photo REUTERS Brendan McDermid File Photo
Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn Photo REUTERS Brendan McDermid File Photo

On October 28, Reuters reported that Prak Sokhonn, foreign minister of Cambodia, whose country is the incoming chair of ASEAN, said that he will push the military rulers to open dialogue with its opponents, and also warned that Burma is on the “brink of civil war”, which in fact is already in the middle of it.

“While we all respect the principle of non-interference into domestic affairs of member states, the situation in Myanmar continues to be a subject of grave concern,” Sokhonn told Reuters.

“Now there is momentum and the junta is under pressure, ASEAN should strike while the iron is hot,” he said.

Bleak outlook

As it is, the junta’s primary backer China is mum on the latest ASEAN handling of the junta, probably because it endorsed the ASEAN five-points consensus. Thus, the junta is losing the support of the ASEAN and as well China.

Chinese Foreign Minister and Min Aung Hlaing
Chinese Foreign Minister and Min Aung Hlaing

Until the junta do something positive to walk back its confrontation and large scale human rights violations of the people it should actually protect, ASEAN would definitely maintain its pressure on it.

Sensing that it is losing diplomatic ground to the opposition, parallel National Unity Government (NUG), it may unleash a wider war in Sagaing Region, Chin State and Karenni or Kayah State. This may be already happening, as its military reinforcement to the mentioned areas are massive according to the reports, and even the UN has issued an alarm of the coming carnage, like the one on the Rohingya in Arakan State in 2017, that could happen in the country’s north-west and south-east of the country.

For now, the junta may try to tone down its animosity on ASEAN and gulp down its false pride, as it has nowhere to turn to. But if it is pushed to comply which it sees as losing ground, it may as well leave the organization. Then ASEAN may have to accept either the NUG or leave the Myanmar seat vacant, somewhat like the UN is doing now.

Meanwhile, the urban guerrilla units all over the country are sabotaging and assassinating the junta’s facilities and its civilian henchmen, with the exception of Arakan State where an uneasy ceasefire is still holding since last October, probably because the junta doesn’t want to spread its forces too thin across the country.

With the polarization of the adversaries at its height, nobody is keen to talk about political dialogue as, rightly or wrongly, each is thinking it is winning and the other side is about collapse.

Thus, the task of ASEAN, US, EU, China may be to pave the way and instil the atmosphere of political settlement dialogue. Otherwise, with each passing day the violent conflict will escalate until sitting face-to-face around the table may become impossible.

For now, the junta headed by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seems determined to work for his group survival and not for the welfare of the people and their aspirations.

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