Nearly two years on, Asean remains ‘fangless’ against Myanmar’s military rule

On Feb 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military staged a coup d’état, overthrowing the nation’s democratically-elected government in Naypyidaw.

In six days, the junta will celebrate its second anniversary in power. Democracy is still an elusive construct in the Southeast Asian nation.

While the military continues to maintain an iron grip on the nation, the episode has also shown the lack of influence and clout the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has in shaping outcomes within its sphere of influence.

Malaysia was among the handful of nations calling for democracy to be restored in Myanmar. But the Myanmar military rulers, perhaps intoxicated by the perks and privileges of unbridled power, have aligned themselves with neighbouring nations who tacitly support them.

As such, Asean’s five-point consensus, which among others, calls for the immediate end to violence and a peaceful dialogue between the stakeholders, has been labelled a “joke”.

Malaysia’s former foreign minister, Datuk Seri Saifuddin Abdullah, still keeps close tabs on the situation in Myanmar, despite no longer being a part of the Cabinet.

Saifuddin, in summarising his interview with UK’s Sky News yesterday, tweeted that Asean should be “more bold in its initiative” to implement the five-point consensus, including using Malaysia’s proposal for a framework with a clear endgame.

He added this should be done by openly engaging with the National Unity Government of Myanmar, the National Unity Consultative Council, and other stakeholders.

“Humanitarian assistance should be at the top of the agenda, with stronger sanctions on military assets, equipment, and fuel.

“Malaysia is working with the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) in trying to enhance education for the Rohingya children who are now in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and other countries,” he tweeted yesterday.

Saifuddin’s successor, Datuk Seri Zambry Abdul Kadir, to date, has adopted a neutral stand and has not spoken about the situation in Myanmar. It remains unclear if the unity government, led by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, will continue the calls made previously by Putrajaya for an “endgame”, or if it would stay out of the affairs of another nation in the region.

Another advocate from Malaysia who has been fighting for democracy in Myanmar, is Charles Santiago. Santiago is chair for the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, and had been vocal about the coup. The DAP man enjoyed a good working relationship with Saifuddin, despite their political differences.

On the issue of Myanmar, both leaders are on the same page.

It has been widely reported that fighting has flared up in recent days between the military and those opposing the junta. There have also been reports of large numbers of civilians fleeing the country. Many undocumented Myanmar nationals, especially the Rohingya, end up in India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Fighting is expected to escalate, leading to Feb 1.

There have been calls for Asean to expel Myanmar and get Timor Leste into the pact, instead. However, that may not happen, given Myanmar’s strong ties with two major superpowers – China and Russia.

Other suggestions include tougher sanctions, and boycotting Myanmar from regional programmes, events, and activities, until there is a solid plan laid out for its citizens to once again, lead the country.

The only thing certain is that Asean has failed to find its way around this impasse. If this continues, Myanmar’s military rulers will continue to mark many more anniversaries in the years to come.

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