Indonesia should lead the way in helping Myanmar’ pro-democratic movement


Indonesia should lead the way in helping Myanmar’ pro-democratic movement

By Charles Santiago.

Two years after the coup d’état in Myanmar on 1 February 2021, the country has descended into a downward spiral as the junta led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing tries to consolidate its power with increasing brutality. Amid the fog of war engulfing Myanmar, two facts have become increasingly clear: the military has failed to take over the country amid widespread popular resistance; and the global community has failed to provide the help that the Myanmar people so badly need in their struggle for democracy.

Those were two of the main conclusions that an International Parliamentary Inquiry (IPI) into the global response to the crisis in Myanmar, organized by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), reached in a report published in November. The report laid bare the many inadequacies of the international community on Myanmar, in particular how it has hidden behind ASEAN, despite the regional bloc’s evident fecklessness in handling the issue so far. Little has changed since the report came out.

On both the domestic and international fronts, 2023 presents itself as a pivotal year for Myanmar. It is a time fraught with danger, as the junta plans to hold an election which will not serve to solve the crisis and is likely to trigger even more violence; for the time being, such plans have been put on hold, as Min Aung Hlaing extended on 1 February the state of emergency for another six months. He even admitted that more than a third of Myanmar’s townships are not controlled by the military.

What the military is unable to admit is that, in the conditions currently prevailing in Myanmar, there is not a remote possibility that any election organized by the junta can be minimally free and fair. And it is Min Aung Hlaing who has created these conditions. The military is persecuting the opposition with criminal ferocity while also viciously killing their own citizens on a daily basis. According to the local organization Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), over 13,600 political prisoners are currently jailed in abysmal conditions, and at least 2,810 people have been killed by the military since the coup, though the organization believes that the number is likely many times higher.

It is thus crucial that international actors, including ASEAN, do not get fooled by the electoral charade planned by Min Aung Hlaing as a desperate attempt to legitimize its illegal takeover. The Myanmar people already voted in 2020, and gave a resounding victory to the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi. And the generals have never shown any evidence that those elections were marred by fraud, as they claim as their flimsy rationale for the coup.

The Myanmar people have clearly shown that they are not willing to accept a return to military rule. The representatives of the elected government and parliament who have managed to avoid being jailed, the National Unity Government (NUG) and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), along with leaders of the ethnic minorities, are working in drafting a new constitution that would establish a democratic federal system.

The global community should support those efforts. And, as Chair of ASEAN, Indonesia should take the first step by breaking with the regional group’s failed approach over the last two years, particularly under the chairmanship of Cambodia in 2021, with the government of Hun Sen engaging with the junta and thus conferring it a legitimacy it does not deserve.

The Myanmar military has disregarded from the outset the Five Point Consensus, which was signed by ASEAN member states and Min Aung Hlaing’s junta in April 2021, and was aimed at putting an end to the violence, foster negotiations between all stakeholders and deliver humanitarian aid. Such disregard only shows the utter contempt of the junta towards ASEAN itself and its member states, including Cambodia; and the group has proved incapable, or unwilling, to enforce the implementation of the agreement.

It is encouraging that the Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Retno Marsudi, squarely blamed the junta for failing to implement the Five Point Consensus in November last year. Now, as Special Envoy to Myanmar, she should step up and lead ASEAN into changing tack on Myanmar.

Ibu Retno should begin with publicly acknowledging the NUG as the legitimate government in Myanmar, and engage with it, alongside allied ethnic organizations and the pro-democracy movement at large, on all issues. As a first step, the Minister should promote within ASEAN a new agreement to replace the failed Five Point Consensus. This new agreement should be negotiated with the NUG and allied forces, not with Min Aung Hlaing, and it should include clear benchmarks and enforcement mechanisms.

The Indonesian government should also recognize that the junta is repeatedly weaponizing aid, and cannot be trusted to deliver it in an effective manner. ASEAN should work through the NUG, ethnic organizations and Myanmar’s vibrant civil society to assist those affected by the humanitarian catastrophe befalling the country since the coup.

Lastly, Indonesia should promote sanctions against the generals, including efforts to impose an arms embargo, cutting the financial flows to the junta and travel bans in the region. The ASEAN Chair should also take a leading role in making the junta accountable for its horrible crimes.

As one of the largest democracies in the world, with experience in sending its own military back to the barracks after decades of dictatorship, Indonesia can, and should, play a positive role in supporting democracy in Myanmar. Indonesia’s chairmanship of ASEAN presents a unique opportunity for the regional group to change course and begin to help at last the Myanmar people in their struggle against the murderous military. Let’s not miss this opportunity.

Charles Santiago is a former member of Parliament from Malaysia, and the co-chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

This article first appeared in The Jakarta Post.

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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was founded in June 2013 with the objective of promoting democracy and human rights across Southeast Asia. Our founding members include many of the region's most progressive Members of Parliament (MPs), with a proven track record of human rights advocacy work.

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