Insanity, as Albert Einstein famously says, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
That’s exactly what the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is currently doing in regard to Myanmar’s military coup against the country’s elected government – the most recent being the February 1, 2022 coup – or to be more precise, in its effort to change the military junta, which in decades (only being interrupted five years by Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD from 2015 to the time of the coup) has been ruling the country in iron fist, to be more humane its own citizens and respectful to the rights of the Myanmar people.
Under pressure from international community to act, ASEAN has repeated the same mistake time and again like it has done in the previous decades following the latest coup by giving the Myanmar junta leaders another opportunity and a window for buying time when the grouping’s leaders agreed three months after the coup on a document called Five Point-Consensus, without any clear time table and any sanction if the junta does not follow up.
And two years on, this consensus is clearly a failure. The junta has yet to follow up any point of the consensus. Not a single one.
In fact, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted, two days after the agreement, the junta already showed its defiance against this consensus, stating it would consider the “suggestions made by ASEAN leaders when the situation returns to stability.”
And in a clear mockery to ASEAN and its leaders the junta ramped up the frequency of mass killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians that amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, as if announcing to the grouping’s leaders: “Who cares about any consensus? We will continue business as usual, and there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway.”
The impact of this failed experiment is catastrophic for Myanmar people.
According to HRW, Myanmar’s security forces have since killed more than 1,700 people, including at least 130 children, and arbitrarily arrested more than 13,000 others while displacing more than 550,000 people. In the eyes of the military junta, what they are doing is cracking down enemies wanting them to give up the power. So, why do they have to stop killing?
Such military junta’s belligerence is nothing new, and even already a modus operandi for them in order to survive.
Myanmar, since became ASEAN member in July 1997, has been a hotspot of humanitarian disaster, ethnic cleansing and other gross human rights violations as well as a humiliation for ASEAN globally, with millions of people having died from ethnic conflicts and wars, and thousands having been executed by one military junta after another.
Yet, in that 25-year span ASEAN has been either turning a blind eye on the plight of Myanmar people. Instead, they have been using the same strategy of engaging Myanmar military elites and appeasing them – rubbing shoulders in ASEAN Summits – in a hope that that they would change. But they will not.
How many more Myanmar people’s lives will be sacrificed for such an experiment just to find out when the military junta will blink? How many more families must flee their homes because of conflicts and violence? How many more Myanmar’s brave and smart opposition activists and leaders must be executed by the junta before ASEAN and global leaders realize that the military junta will not change, let alone hand power to civilians?
Leaders of the grouping have seemingly failed to learn about histories of military coups and military junta across the world, and specifically, from the history of military coups in Myanmar and how the country’s junta has used any means possible to hold on power. If one thing we can learn from history of absolutism, authoritarian and totalitarian is that the ruling groups would never voluntarily give up their grip to power. They must be forced to leave, deposed. Just ask Soeharto or Ferdinand Marcos.
Indonesia, which has been ruled by Soeharto’s totalitarian and militarism for more than three decades, and whose people finally forced him to go in 1998, as well as the Philippines, which was rule under authoritarian and military martial law of Marcos regime, and whose “people’s power” also managed to get rid of Marco in 1996, should have known this fact of history better than others.
From the outset the consensus was bound for failure as it was very unrealistic and was done only as a public stunt for the sake of doing something on the matters and to show ASEAN could take tough action against Myanmar. One with normal level of logic will just have to glance through the points in the consensus to know that they are so unrealistic that it is only a wishful thinking.
The first point of the consensus, for instance, necessitates (the statement uses the word “shall” instead of weaker “should” or stronger “must”) immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, asking all parties to exercise utmost restraint. ASEAN officials, under ASEAN’s non-interference principle, knew well they were in no position to order Myanmar something about its internal affairs, and the strongest they could do is asking.
The second point which is asking for “constructive dialogue among all parties concerned to be commenced to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people” is also impossible to realize because it is asking the junta to acknowledge all individuals and groups, such as National Unity Government (NUG) and Aung San Suu Kyi that have formed resistance but have been branded by the juntas as terrorist groups.
Is there any reason why the military junta leaders will want to acknowledge and talk with parties wanting them to go? Is there any force or massive stick which can coerce them to obey? The answer is no.
Even the UN or US can only do so much, failing in so many years to stop violence in the country, let alone ASEAN, which has no stick but only small carrot with comes from the grouping’s membership. But what benefits do Myanmar military receive as an ASEAN member? Anyway, whatever benefits the junta gets will not outweigh the threat to their very own existence.
The five points in consensus – especially the first and the second point – is basically asking the junta to commit suicide. At least in the junta leaders’ perception and their own experience and looking at the fate of other authoritarians, once they give up power, they will gradually be sidelined and be brought to justice for crime against humanity.
This is, or course, something the junta will prevent to happen whatever the costs and with any means possible.
The Five-Point Consensus the has been dead in the water right after it was agreed. This consensus while agreed by all ASEAN leaders, including Myanmar junta leader, is now nothing but just another dead document.
Bold and Necessary Moves
As the chair of ASEAN this year, all eyes are now on Indonesia and how it will handle Myanmar.
Many in the region and across the world have high hope that during its one-year chairmanship, Indonesia could make a difference, while knowing in full that as big as Indonesia is, it has almost nothing to put on the table other than its size and an experience under a junta itself when it comes to dealing with the Myanmar’s military junta. In fact, the Myanmar junta’s business-as-usual behavior shows that how small – if there is anything at all – the grouping’s leverage on Myanmar.
Some even unfairly think that Indonesia, somehow, might have some kind of magic wand to instantly just change the military junta into decent people, and accordingly, help restore peace in Myanmar during that one-year period whereas more powerful international actors, such as the UN, US and ASEAN itself, have failed to do so in decades.
But this high expectation is dangerous because not only it is unrealistic, will be disappointing and humiliating but also it gives false and exaggerated sense of Indonesia’s capacity and leverage vis a vis Myanmar creating a situation when others will only look on without doing anything, and in the process giving Myanmar junta a room to maneuver and posing grave threats to millions of Myanmar people, especially if Indonesia insists on pushing the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus as shown by joint agreement of Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim during the latter’s trip to Jakarta early this month.
Reports have indicated that the consensus has become a pretext for major powers, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and European Union, and even the United Nations to delay any real action to help Myanmar people as if they are just throwing away responsibility to ASEAN which they say should show its leadership to its own member.
To avoid such a situation and speed up changes in Myanmar, these are bold moves – with the realization that all of these are easier said than done – Indonesia and ASEAN should do.
First, Indonesia must find way for ASEAN to only deal directly with Myanmar people and their legitimate representatives so that they can directly help and support the people of Myanmar, bypassing the junta. This way, Indonesia and ASEAN must talk and negotiate with countries bordering Myanmar, including Bangladesh, India, and especially Thailand and China so that they can allow humanitarian aid be channeled directly to people through their territory.
Second, Indonesia must then lead ASEAN to formally acknowledge the National Unity Government of Myanmar, the exile government of Myanmar – elected through general election by Myanmar people but has been forced to flee by the military coup – and invite them to ASEAN meetings as the official representative of Myanmar. The coup, the mass killings and other gross human rights violation mean that the military junta is nothing more than criminals, and not the valid representatives of Myanmar people. ASEAN members must realize by now that the military junta has no rights and legitimacy to govern in the country.
Third, Indonesia and ASEAN must send strong signal to the junta that they can at the very least temporary suspend Myanmar’s ASEAN membership on the pretext of the junta’s failure to follow up on the consensus. But it must be done so in a way that they really mean it, and in fact they can and will do it. All this time, ASEAN only suggests, asks or gives ultimatum to Myanmar with adequate stick behind it. With ASEAN’s longstanding principle of non-interference, Myanmar junta knows and already exploit this. But it must be made different now.
For this matter, Indonesia must first ask for a change in decision-making process from consensus to voting system – at least for Myanmar matter – so that a tough decision can be made without any country can stand in the way. Currently, even one country can and has blocked any ASEAN’s meaningful move on Myanmar or any other issues, making ASEAN indecisive.
Argument against isolating the Myanmar junta is that they will fall more closer to China. But this is an exaggeration, and anyway, they have been fell into China at the moment. So, it can’t be worse than now.
It’s a globally accepted modern principle – including that in the UN – that gross human rights violation and crimes against humanity could negate non-interference principle. As so many evidences of these crimes available that it is a matter of political will to do it.
Fifth, Indonesia and ASEAN must involve all parties, the UN, US, UK and EU and China in handling the problems, and voice strong rejection that this is solely ASEAN’s problem. ASEAN must state clearly that it can hand over Myanmar junta’s crime against humanity and gross human rights violation to the UN, which has the power to enter Myanmar by force on the pretext of such crimes.
These five bold concrete moves will send strong signal to the junta that ASEAN mean business, and at the same time, can energize Myanmar people’s resistance inside and outside the country against the junta. By doing this, Indonesia and ASEAN create themselves a leverage against the military junta, which is absent all this time and have made any ASEAN’s initiative fail, and at the same time help Myanmar people a fighting chance against the junta.
When the great Victor Hugo said “when dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right,” the current Myanmar condition would have been in his mind. So yes, given their long history of having lived under brutal military dictators Myanmar people have earned that right, and Indonesia, ASEAN and the world must assist Myanmar people with the means to exercise this right. Like any other oppressed people elsewhere, by the end of the day, it’s Myanmar people themselves who can determine their own destiny.