Myanmar tests Asean unity again

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Feb 1 was a day of celebration as millions marked the beginning of the Year of the Tiger. But it was also a day of sober reflection as it reminded us about the military takeover in Myanmar exactly a year ago.

It has been a year of violence and tragedy for the people of Myanmar, and frustration that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has failed to act in any meaningful way so far.

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Since the Tatmadaw, led by Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, overthrew the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar has been plagued with conflict and violence. The United Nations Human Rights Office estimates that junta forces have killed at least 1,500 civilians targeted at peaceful demonstrators or in raids on homes and business. Nearly one-fifth of the deaths occurred while the victims were in custody and often resulted from torture, it added.

With the military attacking civilian targets in the countryside, more than 400,000 people have fled their homes. Save the Children reports that at least 150,000 children are among those displaced. Many are living in shelters in the jungle, where they are vulnerable to hunger and illness.

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Myanmar’s economy has suffered a severe decline as a result of international sanctions, business shutdowns and foreign investors pulling out. Last month, the oil giants Chevron and Total announced plans to withdraw from an offshore natural gas field that is a major source of cash for the regime. The World Bank estimates Myanmar’s economy contracted by almost a fifth last year.

To mark the anniversary of the coup, protest leaders staged a “silent strike” last Tuesday, urging people to stay home, close their shops and halt outdoor activity for six hours. The junta warned that participants would be charged with terrorism and other offences and made dozens of arrests.

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The international community has also stepped up the pressure. On Monday, Britain and Canada joined the US in imposing new sanctions against top judicial officials and others helping the junta, including Jonathan Kyaw Thaung, the scion of a prominent business family.

The US has now imposed sanctions on 65 individuals and sanctioned or placed export controls on 26 organisations with close ties to the regime. The UN Security Council called for an “immediate cessation of all forms of violence” in Myanmar and expressed hope that a special envoy would be allowed to travel there to mediate the crisis.

Asean, meanwhile, has made little progress since barring military-appointed representatives from attending the Asean Summit last October. If anything, the group is even less united than before when it comes to dealing with its troublesome member.

Cambodia, which assumed the Asean chairmanship this year, last month undermined the bloc when Prime Minister Hun Sen became the first foreign leader to visit the country since the generals seized power.

Hun Sen defended his move as a way to break the ice for Asean but his “different approach” was not welcomed by other members. “Normally, the Asean chair consults with others anytime they want to do something that is considered significant,” said Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Hun Sen that Myanmar’s military leaders and senior officials should not be invited to official Asean gatherings unless the country implements the five-point peace plan agreed by the bloc’s leaders, including Min Aung Hlaing, last April.

Feeling the resistance, Cambodia last Thursday backtracked on its plan to invite junta Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin to the foreign ministers’ meeting in Siem Reap next week. Instead, a non-political representative will be invited, a spokesman said, as the military government had done little to meet the five-point peace plan.

Of course, Asean alone cannot restore peace in Myanmar. It takes a greater effort from the international community to resolve and reverse the dire situation there. For example, the US State Department has asked officials in Singapore, Myanmar’s biggest source of foreign investment, to limit the military’s access to financial assets overseas.

While Cambodia itself is far from a model of democracy, I’d prefer not to get into that debate now. But anything the strongman-led state does on Asean’s behalf regarding Myanmar must be carefully considered. All sides need to be consulted so that any moves, even if they don’t bring a brighter future for Asean, don’t spilt the bloc even further.

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