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Why ASEAN needs to take a stance regarding the political crisis in Myanmar

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

by Wai Thar

A few days ago I was in an online discussion where people from different ASEAN countries were discussing about the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar. The discussion was about whether or not it was right for ASEAN to invite Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of Burmese military, to the ASEAN Summit that will be held on April 24th in Jakarta. The general sentiment was that Min Aung Hlaing, the ringleader of the coup and the commander-in-chief of the military that has killed more than 700 unarmed civilians, has been raiding houses, conducting arbitrary arrests, brutally torturing the arrested protestors, and terrorizing the entire population in Myanmar day and night, should not be representing Myanmar at the summit. Most of us from Myanmar think that it is National Unity Government (NUG) that should represent Myanmar since it is the legitimate government of the people and that it is the only government that ASEAN should engage with in order to help people in Myanmar put an end to our nightmares.

One white American man came into the online discussion and bluntly stated that “ASEAN should not let either Min Aung Hlaing or NUG at their table and simply tell both of them to figure out who the real government is on their own. ASEAN should say that only after that Myanmar will have a seat in the ASEAN.” He then continued to say that doing this will also make China to be more proactive in intervening the crisis in Myanmar rather than relying on ASEAN to solve it.

Listening to such a proposal is quite jarring for a local Burmese who is currently living inside Myanmar and under the military junta, and whose life, along with the lives of 50 million people in Myanmar, will be negatively impacted if ASEAN decided to pursue such a disastrous policy. In fact, the behavior of the white American man in question is in line with the Orientalist trope outlined by the journalist Aye Min Thant regarding the CNN’s parachute journalism. White people boldly deciding what is the best for brown people living under the political crisis and the brutal military regime.

Firstly, ASEAN turning its back on Myanmar and positing the political situation in Myanmar as some sort of “internal affairs” that the military and NUG will have to “figure out on their own” will do more harm than good. As we have been witnessing for the past two and a half month since the coup, the only way Min Aung Hlaing’s military has been “figuring out” the strong nation-wide resistance against him and his ruthless military is the brutal killings, arbitrary arrests, the tortures of innocent and unarmed civilians. The military doesn’t seem like they are going to stop the killings and the tortures until they have crushed the souls of the millions of people in Myanmar into submission. Therefore, if ASEAN does not engage with Myanmar, there will be more bloodshed. It will be the lives and livelihoods of people inside Myanmar who will suffer, not white “political analysts” sitting in their safe and comfortable homes in the Global North. ASEAN cannot turn its back on the people of Myanmar and their sufferings. ASEAN cannot allow itself to be complicit in the crimes of the Myanmar military junta against its own population. ASEAN needs to engage with the NGU of Myanmar, but not with the military.

Secondly, the people of Myanmar want a genuine federal democracy as well as Min Aung Hlaing’s military to be completely out of the politics in Myanmar—if not abolished entirely—and to be accountable to the crimes they have committed. Some suggestions have been made towards ASEAN to bring together the military and NUG in order to find a “peaceful solution” to the current crisis. For most people in Myanmar, the time to negotiate with the military has already passed. If the negotiations will lead to a mere reversal of the coup and the political landscape before the coup on February 1st, and the military still maintaining a lot of power in Myanmar politics, people will not accept it, especially after the lives of so many innocent civilians have been scarified. In fact, most people in Myanmar are determined to sacrifice their lives and abolish the military once and for all even if it means the country will go down to the path of a failed state or a full-blown civil war across the entire nation. If Myanmar were to arrive to this stage, it means this crisis could have a huge negative impact on ASEAN countries (especially the neighboring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore), from refugee crisis to economic crisis to the stability in the region.

The truth is ASEAN has never been an effective organization when it comes to collectively taking a stance and taking actions to crises such as Myanmar is currently facing. It is time that ASEAN put aside its “non-interference” policy and be proactive. It needs to recognize NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar chosen by the people. It needs to engage with NUG and respect the will of the people inside Myanmar. It needs to take up the moral courage and stand with the people of the Myanmar, not with the generals committing gruesome crimes and terrorizing innocent civilians across the entire nation. ASEAN needs to take a stance and it needs to do it quickly, not just for the future of Myanmar but for the future of ASEAN itself.

Wai Thar is the pseudonym of a local Burmese who is currently living inside Myanmar and resisting the illegal military coup and illegitimate military junta together with their fellow Burmese people across the nation.

Cite as: Wai Thar. (2021). Why ASEAN needs to take a stance regarding the political crisis in Myanmar. Aruna Global South Blog. April 22.

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