KUALA LUMPUR: Let me lay out some of my perspectives on the latest developments in the Myanmar crisis. Almost a month and a half has passed since the national leaders of most of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) gathered at the Asean headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia. The summit was purported to deal with the Myanmar issue, and the Myanmar junta leader was even invited (but no one from the Myanmar democratic movement side). It was the first time these leaders met since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic early last year.
It is perhaps somewhat understandable due to the long summit interval that the statement issued at the conclusion of the summit went over a slew of other issues of common concern to the Asean leaders before delving into the Myanmar crisis in the last few paragraphs. But the appended so-called five-point consensus on Myanmar left, perhaps, a lot to be desired. The consensus did call for a cessation of violence from all sides although it was clear since the early days after the coup, that it was the Myanmar military that has been propagating violence throughout the country, not least toward peaceful demonstrators. There was the call for dialogue between the rival sides, but how could such dialogue be realistically and constructively held when most of the main leaders of the democratic movement, including the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have been in jail since the coup? The consensus was conspicuously silent on any demand for the immediate and unconditional release of these democratically elected leaders as well as other political prisoners. In recent days, the junta did put up Suu Kyi and others for what can only be deemed a show trial in a kangaroo court. But that only reinforced the illegitimacy of a ruthless junta in the eyes of the democratic mainstream of the international community.
Well, the Asean leaders' five-point consensus did call for the appointment of a special envoy who should be able to travel to Myanmar to meet all parties. The fact that this simple, very logical demand actually made up two of the five points in the consensus is at best curious and at worst giving a glimpse of how one-sidedly it was favoring the Myanmar junta. In any case, it would appear that a special envoy was finally appointed from Brunei, and in recent days he was able to travel to Myanmar together with his erstwhile colleague and countryman, the current Asean secretary-general. But the pair has so far managed to meet only with the junta leader and not those from the democratic movement. A mediation effort as such is frankly going nowhere. Recently, it was profusely reported that at least some in Asean circles are disappointed with the very slow process in resolving the Myanmar crisis. Indonesia even urged for the immediate implementation of the five-point consensus.
It is no secret that some of the more authoritarian regimes among Asean countries are not too keen for Asean as a whole or its member states individually to "interfere in the domestic affairs" of fellow Asean countries, even if antidemocratic feats are being carried out with impunity in those countries, as is the case with Myanmar now. These countries are perhaps recoiling from the proverbial casting of the first stone toward an offending brother nation, as they cannot really proclaim that they themselves have not sinned in either the past or the present, what with their often less than stellar human rights record and less than liberal democratic practices at home. They fear future reciprocal foreign interference or "inspection" of their own soiled record and ruthless practices. So, they very conveniently hide behind the oft vaunted Asean principles of noninterference and, somewhat ironically and paradoxically, consensus decision- making.
Can Asean and its member states do more with regard to the Myanmar crisis? Well, when there is a will, then there is more than one way to go about it. For one, Asean could impose some sort of deadline on the Myanmar junta to release political prisoners at least unconditionally, especially the senior leaders of the democratic movement, or even hand back power to the democratically elected government. Failure to meet such deadlines could be punished with at least a suspension of Myanmar's participation in Asean activities, including its rights and privileges under the Asean Economic Community that could see the country's commodity exports, now mostly controlled by those who are closely related to the Myanmar military, losing their free-trade and therefore low- or zero-tariff advantages. This would likely not lead to additional undue hardships on the Myanmar populace, as a large portion of the country's civilian population are voluntarily engaging in civil disobedience anyway, refusing to go to work in an economy whose resources are largely in the hands of the military.
But that is not all. In the mid-1970s, Cambodia was overtaken by a brutal, bloodthirsty regime called the Khmer Rouge, which killed millions of Cambodians in their dystopian quest for a communist utopia. By late 1970s, at the invitation of hapless Cambodian dissidents, Vietnam entered Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime, with remnants of the regime retreating to remote parts of the country. But a number of Asean countries refused to recognize the new Cambodian government installed afterwards and clung on to recognizing the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate Cambodian government, the erstwhile regime's terror record and its minuscule exercise of actual control over parts of Cambodia notwithstanding. This sort of ethereal recognition of an overthrown regime continued more or less into the 1990s, when the Cambodian peace process brought in a new political phase.
So, the point here is that many Asean countries saw no problem in recognizing a displaced government, even one with universally an acknowledged terror record, so what more with a democratically elected but temporarily displaced one? Now, it was also reported recently that the various factions in Myanmar's democratic movement opposing the junta have come together to form a government of national unity, a form of parallel government that is not quite in exile, as many senior leaders are still in hiding in the country. Individual Asean countries, whether or not in concert with other Asean countries, should go ahead and lend recognition and thereby legitimacy to this parallel government of Myanmar, as there is precedent for doing so. This could further ostracize the junta as a pariah in the eyes of the democratic mainstream of the international community. It is high time that some sort of coalition of the willing be built, albeit on an ad hoc basis, among those truly democracy-loving Asean countries, so that they can truly be constructive forces for the greater good, not just in the region but for the wider, chaotic world as well.