The Significance of ASEAN’s Efforts to Restore Peace in Myanmar

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Myanmar’s situation is becoming more protracted as violence between the military, the People’s Defence Force (PDF), and other ethnic armed groups continues. ASEAN is actively trying for an amicable solution to end the ongoing conflict and restore peace in Myanmar. The forum has voiced its support for a political solution to the crisis.

In the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Conference on July 12, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that only a political solution could bring lasting peace to Myanmar. As the Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing is not interested in negotiating with the opposition, the five-point peace proposal given by ASEAN to restore peace in Myanmar has not yet been implemented. ASEAN calls on all member states to strongly condemn the on-going violence in Myanmar and also wants Myanmar’s conflicting parties to resume talks to reach a political settlement. Parliamentarians from ASEAN nations asked Thailand to sever ties with Myanmar’s junta-run government. They argued that no ASEAN member state should have friendly relations with Myanmar’s military because the force has turned Myanmar into a center of instability – threatening the entire region.

However, Thailand, a neighbor of Myanmar and a member of ASEAN, arranged a conference with Myanmar in December 2022 to talk about the current conflict there. Foreign Minister of Laos and Cambodia and the Deputy Foreign Minister of Vietnam along with Myanmar Junta representative were present in that meeting. Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore did not participate there. As ASEAN is divided over diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis of Myanmar, the alliance has failed to take a united stand. ASEAN is trying to bridge the divisions that have arisen among the member states over the Myanmar issue.

Chief of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, General Chalermpol Srisawat and Myanmar’s Junta Chief Min Aung Hlaing, met on January to further strengthen mutual trust, understanding and friendly relations between the two-armed forces. Myanmar has more than 2,400 kilometers of border with Thailand. Cooperation between the two countries is needed on various issues, including human trafficking, drugs, and weapons. Millions of people displaced by Myanmar’s ongoing violence seek refuge along the Thai-Myanmar border, where they fear deportation because of their lack of legal protection. Besides, Thailand has corporate investment in Myanmar totaling more than $11 billion in 154 projects, which is 12.5% of all foreign investment in Myanmar and ranks Thailand third in terms of investment.

Junta Foreign Minister Than Swe said that Myanmar’s military is focusing its efforts on three of the five ASEAN consensus points. He told that, the regime is working to end the violence in the country, initiate dialogue between all parties and provide humanitarian aid to the people of Myanmar. ASEAN welcomes any strategy, bilateral, trilateral or multilateral, based on ASEAN or non-ASEAN frameworks, to restore peace in Myanmar. At the same time, the National Unity Government (NUG) and other opposition coalitions in Myanmar along with the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) must unite and demonstrate that they have the strength and capability to lead and protect the nation. Gaining skills in local government structure, good governance and management of federal system and dialogue between NUG and various ethnic groups will play an important role in strengthening their position.

The military coup in Myanmar has led to a wave of civil protests and armed resistance by EAOs and civil defence forces. The junta government responded brutally with hundreds of air strikes, resulting in the destruction of tens of thousands of homes. According to a report issued on July 15 by the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs, 1.9 million people have been displaced in Myanmar, including 1.6 million victims of the 2021 military coup, and more than 1 million people have abandoned their homes. The Rohingyas, who fled the nation and sought asylum in Bangladesh as a result of the Myanmar junta’s cruel persecution, are excluded from this estimate. The military junta has killed 3,800 citizens and imprisoned almost 20,000 since taking power. Military personnel have destroyed around 70,000 structures. Millions of people in the country are enduring food shortages, relocation, and economic devastation as a result of the armed conflict. The country has endured international isolation and sanctions, leading in decreased foreign investment and commerce, which has harmed the economy.

The people of Myanmar have resisted to get rid of this situation. The United Nations Human Rights Council established the Independent Investigation Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) to gather evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Myanmar. Their reports revealed the burning of entire villages, the deliberate bombing of civilian homes, and the massacre of civilians and captured combatants. After all these, the arms supply to Myanmar could not be stopped. A UN report notes that the junta government bought $1 billion worth of weapons and equipment after taking power. Many Southeast Asian countries, networks, and organizations are benefitting from the plight of the Myanmar people by supplying the junta with weapons and other equipment.

Myanmar’s junta government reneged on its promise to hold general elections in August this year, suspending the election process and extending the ongoing state of emergency for another six months. Junta Chief Min Aung Hlaing informed a top officials’ conference that the prevalence of terrorism in Myanmar has dropped as a result of ongoing actions by the military against the attacking groups. However, the country’s position has not yet returned to normal.  By extending the state of emergency four times since assuming power, it is clear that the military does not have enough control over the people and most areas of the country.

The Election Commission of Myanmar removed the NLD from the list of political parties due to its failure to register with the Election Commission, making it ineligible to participate in the elections. Extending the state of emergency, according to the US, would plunge Myanmar into bloodshed and instability. Former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned after being ousted in a military coup in 2021. Suu Kyi was sentenced to a total of 33 years in prison at the end of the 19-count trial. In five of these criminal cases, the term of imprisonment was reduced to six years by declaring amnesty. On July 28, Suu Kyi was released from prison and taken to a government building.

In 2017, under Suu Kyi’s rule, the Myanmar military’s crackdown on the Rohingya ethnic group forced nearly 1.1 million Rohingya to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. Her inability to address the armed forces’ ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas in Rakhine State sparked international outrage and criticism.  Regardless, her efforts to build a democratic Myanmar are internationally acknowledged. On May 27 and June 4, Suu Kyi and senior military leaders held fruitful talks on the country’s armed conflict, public security and peace building. It is perceived that the current junta government wants to use Suu Kyi’s influence to end the armed struggle.

The international community must continue its support to restore peace and stability in Myanmar. Countries that have been helping Myanmar prolong the present conflict by providing weapons and other aid must withdraw from their positions and help fulfil the election promises made by the junta government. The UN, Western countries and donor agencies believe that a return to peace and democracy in Myanmar will accelerate Rohingya repatriation. As a neighbouring country, Bangladesh hopes for peace, progress and stability in Myanmar. Aside from the Rohingya issue, communication between the two countries can help both countries develop and progress. There is no doubt about ASEAN countries’ contribution to Myanmar’s economy. As a result, ASEAN should maintain its efforts to restore peace and stability in Myanmar. If ASEAN and other regional countries can restore peace in Myanmar, it will be a phenomenal success as well as recognition of the region’s ability to resolve crises locally.

– Brig Gen (Retd.) Hasan Md Shamsuddin, ndc, psc, afwc, Mphil, is a Lead Researcher for the Rohingya, Myanmar and ASEAN Affairs at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Eurasia Review [Link]