ASEAN mediation: Glimmer of hope for Myanmar

Published April 26, 2021, 12:03 AM

by Manila Bulletin

At a special summit convened in Jakarta over the weekend, ASEAN leaders issued an urgent call for an end to violence in Myanmar and for steps to be taken to restore democracy following a military coup last February 1.

Their five-point statement of consensus also called for a visit to Myanmar by a special envoy of the ASEAN chair to initiate constructive dialogue among the contending parties. The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance shall also be allowed to facilitate the provision of aid.  The United Nations World Food program has expressed concern that up to 3.4 million people, mostly in urban centers, could go hungry within the next six months.

Since the coup, 745 people have been killed and more than 3,300 imprisoned. Even before the coup, Myanmar had been struggling to cope with widespread poverty amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The intervention by its ASEAN neighbors would hopefully inject a measure of stability and prevent a further escalation of violence.

While Brunei Darussalam presently holds ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship, it was Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo who initiated the first in-person summit since the pandemic outbreak. President Duterte and Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha begged off, citing their preoccupation with the COVID-19 surge. Also represented by his foreign minister was President Bounnhang Vorachith of Laos.

The restoration of the duly elected National Unity Government is the key to ending the violent protests.  Feeling empowered by access to social media channels, Myanmar’s activists have mounted rallies and protest actions that have mobilized people by the thousands and garnered multi-sectoral support in many parts of the country.

Myanmar coup leader Min Aung Hlaing attended the summit. He mounted the coup last February 1, alleging electoral fraud in parliamentary elections where the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi won 83 percent of the vote.

The daughter of a Burmese army general, she was placed under house arrest in 1991 after her party overwhelmingly won the popular elections and freed only in 2010. A Nobel Peace laureate, she emerged as the country’s leader in 2015 after the military stepped aside while controlling key portfolios and securing a guaranteed bloc of seats in parliament.

Global condemnation of the violent purge of the Rohingya — a Muslim indigenous tribe — somewhat dimmed her reputation as an icon of democracy, especially after her testimony at the International Court of Justice where she lamented that the images and news reports on the ethnic conflict were incomplete and misleading. Evidently, she remains hugely popular among the Buddhist majority.

The ASEAN initiative mirrors the statement issued by the UN Security Council, led by the United States as Council President last March, that supports the democratic transition in Myanmar.

China, whose ambitious Belt and Road initiative includes a vital link to the Indian Ocean at the terminus of the China-Myanmar economic corridor in a township on the Bay of Bengal, has a stake in restoring democracy.

With a convergence of interests among the global powers, there is a glimmer of hope that democracy will return to Myanmar.