On February 1, Army trucks and tanks rolled into the streets of Naypyidaw and Yangon, signaling the military’s overthrow of a government in which it had a sizeable share of power. The generals felt insecure with the landslide victory of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November 2020 elections. They decided to exert full control and terminate the experiment of transition to democracy that their wiser predecessors had initiated in 2010.
Paying a hefty price
The costs of this political U-turn have been high. People clashed with police and army units wielding batons, rubber bullets and live ammunitions. Youth, women, professional groups and ethnic minorities rose in unison to demand the release of their elected leaders and return of freedoms and democracy. People’s resolve surprised the military as much as the latter’s brutality shocked the largely non-violent protesters.
In the end, unarmed demonstrators had to yield to the logic of the bullets fired. The civil disobedience movement began to lose momentum from early April. The people paid a heavy price: 750 were killed, thousands injured, and over 2,500 detained. One reality, however, remained unchanged: power still flowed from the gun in Myanmar.
The Army offered a fundamentally unfair solution: the results of the 2020 elections were set aside, new elections were promised in a year or two and so was a ‘disciplined democracy’ (in which the military presumably would have more control).
People opposing the military initially called for the restoration of the status quo ante i.e., undo the coup and let the newly elected parliament function, with a new NLD government. As there were no signs of the acceptance of this demand and violence escalated, positions hardened. The opposition then came up with a new, radical package, including rejection of the 2008 constitution, adoption of a new Federal Democracy Charter, and announcement of the ‘national unity government’ with representation from the majority Bamar and ethnic minority communities. The generals were not impressed.
The ASEAN group, which includes Myanmar, was deeply concerned over the coup’s adverse impact. Its principles, credibility and much-touted but largely eroded ‘centrality’ were endangered. Although still wedded to the concept of non-interference in internal affairs of its member states, ASEAN followed its activist tradition to assist Myanmar exit from this quagmire.
But first it had to bridge internal differences, with members like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam inclined to be sympathetic to the military and others like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore keen to mediate in the Myanmar crisis for the region’s larger good. Then, it had to navigate the chasm within the international community. The U.S., the U.K. and the European Union zealously advocated a policy of condemnation and strong sanctions against the military regime, while China and Russia were determined to protect the generals from excessive censure and opposition, on the ground that greater instability would jeopardise their interests.
Fortunately, other Asian powers, notably India and Japan, preferred to support reconciliation. ASEAN also had to handle deftly the activism of the United Nations Secretary General whose special envoy strove to find a role for herself, even though Naypyidaw was opposed to her approach. ASEAN kept up consultations with her, even letting her visit Jakarta just when the momentous ASEAN summit was held on April 24 there. The summit’s ostensible agenda was a discussion on regional developments, but the single-most important item was to devise a classic way to defuse the crisis in Myanmar.
Two major features of the Jakarta summit outcome need to be appreciated. First, the Five Point-Consensus has the presumed concurrence of Myanmar’s new strong man, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Its contents include immediate cessation of violence; supply of humanitarian assistance; constructive dialogue; and ASEAN’s mediation through the visit by a special envoy of ASEAN’s Chair and the Secretary General of ASEAN. Who the special envoy would be remains unclear so far.
Second, the first part of the Chairman’s statement includes a para on the repatriation from Bangladesh of the Rakhine state’s displaced people. This part also contains a line that “calls for release of all political prisoners including foreigners” were “also heard”. It was evident that the Myanmar representation had reservations on these two elements, the reason why they were excluded from the Five Point-Consensus. The unstated message from Jakarta was that Ms. Suu Kyi’s political role might become a casualty of an eventual settlement. She could be released only when the situation normalises, perhaps on condition that she glides into a deserved retirement.
Critics in Myanmar underplayed the likely impact of the Jakarta agreement, with the key opposition leader, Dr Sasa, stressing that there would be no dialogue with the junta unless it agreed to the conditions put forward earlier, including the release of political prisoners. ASEAN has created a rare pathway to help Myanmar move forward. However, the road ahead promises to be difficult. The opposition in Myanmar would need to internalise the utility of a helping hand extended by the region. The military is perhaps grateful for the honourable opportunity to climb off the tiger it unwittingly rode on February 1. But it seems in no hurry to talk to the Opposition.
International reactions to the Jakarta summit outcome have largely been positive. The UN and other global stakeholders appreciate Southeast Asia’s willingness to resolve its problems in its ‘family way’. As a neighbour with vital stakes, India welcomed the ASEAN initiative. New Delhi should unreservedly back ASEAN’s endeavours, helping it blossom further by extending requisite support to Jakarta and other capitals.
Myanmar’s leaders should work for a lasting reconciliation, deriving inspiration from Lord Buddha’s ‘Middle Path’. A nation often let down by its leaders, Myanmar deserves a better future.
This article was first published in The Hindu.
Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House.