For decades, the ethnically and linguistically diverse people of Isan, Thailand, have been the subject of pervasive bias, often described as docile and uneducated, or as “unsophisticated peasants” who can be bought and manipulated by ambitious politicians. Bordered by Laos and the Mekong River to the north and east, and by Cambodia to the southeast, these 20 provinces in Thailand’s northeast have long been the country’s poorest and least fertile region. But Isan is also Thailand’s most populous region, with 22 million inhabitants, 33% of the country’s total population. It is a population that matters deeply to the country’s future prosperity.
A major new study from The Asia Foundation, Thailand’s Inequality: Myths and Reality of Isan, sets aside these prejudices to instead offer a comprehensive understanding of a region deeply in need of development. The study, conducted from late 2017 to April 2019, explores the perceptions of the people of Isan themselves—how they see their lives today and their prospects for the future, the challenges and opportunities before them, what matters to them, and what they expect from the government. Based on a randomized survey of 1,400 households, and 160 semi-structured interviews and focus groups, Thailand’s Inequality explores public attitudes on fundamental topics such as economic status, optimism about the future, health, education, migration, and public policy.
There is good news to report. Data from the National Statistics Office shows that the number of people living below the poverty line has declined substantially, from nearly 5.7 million people in 2007 to 2.4 million people in 2016, a significant improvement for a majority of the population. Yet, people in Isan are still concerned about the overall direction of the country. When asked whether Thailand is going in the right or the wrong direction, 55% of respondents in this heavily agricultural region said the country is going in the wrong direction, citing a bad economy (74%) and poor crop prices (50%).
Looking at incomes in the region, 44% of respondents reported that their incomes have been stagnant, and 36% said that their incomes have decreased. Meanwhile, both farm and nonfarm costs are rising. Some 38% percent of all respondents said that investment costs have increased in the past year. Eighty-eight percent of all respondents said they are in debt, and 45% of all respondents said their debt is due to loans for investment in either a farm or a nonfarm business.
In the agriculture sector, rents for agricultural land, the cost of labor, and prices for pesticides and other inputs have all increased. One-third of the region’s population, 7.8 million people, are farmers, and the majority produce cash crops such as rubber, sugarcane, and cassava that are sensitive to volatile international markets. With stagnant incomes, fluctuating crop prices, and the growing cost of investment, Isan farmers are struggling to maintain their quality of life.
Although personal indebtedness has increased nationally in Thailand, debt levels in Isan are particularly troubling. The population of Isan has an average debt of about nine months of earnings, or 75% of annual income. In 1996, the average household debt was 36,204 baht. Today that indebtedness stands at 160,000 baht.
Overall, low productivity, fluctuating crop prices, stagnant incomes, and rising debt make it harder to live well in Isan. Yet, a striking aspect of Thailand’s Inequality is the portrait it paints of resilience and perseverance. Some 57% of respondents think their livelihoods will improve in the future, while just 10% think their livelihoods will get worse.
Stories of resilience come through clearly in the qualitative component of the research. For example, organic farmers in the village of Na Wang Yai, a hundred kilometers from the city of Khon Kaen, were eager to describe their efforts to rise above the level of subsistence farming. They explained why organic rice is a better crop that earns them a better price, they lamented the growing cost of investments, and they talked about new kinds of financing that financial institutions have introduced.
Interviewed shortly before the latest elections, these farmers were articulate about what they wanted from the government: better public policy. They had met all their politicians, and they were used to hearing promises that would never be kept. They didn’t want 500-baht handouts to secure their votes, they said; what they wanted from the incoming government was “water” and “technology.”
Currently, many villages have limited access to water and a small collection of agricultural equipment that everyone must share. “More of these would be better,” said one farmer, “even if the government would pay just half.”
These farmers represent the changing face of Isan, where agriculture is evolving, and aspirations are emerging for new tools and knowledge. They were outspoken and sophisticated, far from the demeaning stereotypes. Despite the widespread lack of formal education among farmers and informal workers in Isan, respondents were well-versed in the spectrum of government services. When asked about their satisfaction with the performance of 20 government programs, they spoke clearly about what these programs had been doing for them and their hopes and expectations of much more.
A fascinating aspect of this underdeveloped region was the strong bond Isan farmers, workers, and students feel toward their hometowns. “Isan is home,” was a common refrain in the semi-structured interviews and focus groups. “We want to work closer to home.” “We want to study closer to home.”
The strong attachment of Isan people to their hometowns can be seen in the decline of worker emigration from the region. While studies through the 1990s found rates of labor migration that ranged from 38% to 68% of the population, just 25% of respondents in this study have lived elsewhere for more than a year.
The Isan region is Thailand’s poorest, and life there is tough, but this research found that Isan farmers and workers are determined. They understand the government’s safety-net programs and make the best of them. These programs play a vital role in alleviating their hardship, and what the government does significantly affects their quality of life. There is also plenty of room for these programs to improve.
Thailand’s Inequality highlights the voices, perceptions, and aspirations of the people of Isan. An honest, straightforward, and bipartisan conversation is now needed to turn this evidence into meaningful development projects and programs that will help empower residents to lift their region out of poverty and toward sustainable growth and equitable development.
Thailand’s Inequality: Myths and Reality of Isan was funded by the government of the United Kingdom and The Asia Foundation.
Author’s note: first published with InAsia
UNHRC Resolution on Myanmar: Another Global Action against the Military Regime
The United Nations has taken another landmark decision against the continuing atrocities of the Military regime in Myanmar. The global action through the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on 12 July 2021 gave a powerful message to the regime for its gross violations of human rights specifically against the stateless Rohingyas. Bangladesh has played a crucial role behind the approval of the resolution. The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the “Human Rights Situation of Rohingya Muslims and other Minorities in Myanmar” in its 47th session condemning human rights violations by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya and other minorities, and called for a process of reconciliation. The resolution was approved without a vote in the Geneva-based council. China, one of the 47 council members, told it could not join the consensus but nonetheless did not insist on bringing the text to a vote.
The text of the resolution calls for a “constructive and peaceful dialogue and reconciliation, in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar, including Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities.” It also voices “unequivocal support for the people of Myanmar and their democratic aspirations and for the democratic transition in Myanmar.” The resolution calls for the immediate cessation of fighting and hostilities, of the targeting of civilians and of all violations of humanitarian and rights laws. It voices “grave concern” at continuing reports of serious human rights violations and abuses, including of arbitrary arrests, deaths in detention, torture, forced labour and “the deliberate killing and maiming of children.”
It has also emphasized the need to bring those accused and responsible for all forms of torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes against Rohingyas, including sexual offenses, to justice under appropriate national, regional and international judicial mechanisms. In this spirit, the resolution acknowledges the ongoing criminal proceedings in the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. The resolution also reiterates the authority of the UN Security Council to determine what to do in such a situation. It requested the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit a report to the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly on the progress made in implementing the recommendations of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. It also called for a panel discussion in the Human Rights Council on “the root causes of human rights violations and abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar.”
The resolution appears to be comprehensive in its scope and mandate. It is the first of its kind adopted unanimously since the horrific attacks on the Rohingyas in August 2017. The Human Rights Council has been proactive in protesting against the Myanmar regime for its perpetration of ethnic cleansing and genocide. This UN body has, for the first time, termed the Myanmar regime’s brutality and atrocity against the Rohingyas as ‘the textbook case of ethnic cleansing’. The resolution is significant for several reasons. First, the resolution has been adopted unanimously although China, India and Russia are the members of the UNHRC. China as the staunch ally of the Myanmar regime did not hinder the passing of the resolution based on the rare consensus in the UN forum. Second, the resolution remains a unique case of strong message to the military regime of Myanmar. Unlike the UN Security Council, the Third Committee and the General Assembly, the UNHRC has been able to bring together all 47 member countries to create a consensus on the gross violations of human rights against the Rohingyas and other minorities in Myanmar.
It may be mentioned that the Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system, made up of 47 States, which are responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. The Council was created by the United Nations General Assembly on 15 March 2006 with the main purpose of addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them. The composition of the Human Rights Council shows participation of member countries from different regions in the world. Members are elected from Africa, Asia Pacific, West Europe, East Europe, Latin America, North America and other regions. Third, the resolution has strongly condemned and warned the military regime for its brutality, atrocity and illegal grabbing of power. No international body has so far applied such a powerful statement against the military regime in Myanmar. Fourth, it gives a hope to the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities that the UN puts the issue on high level of agenda. It is also encouraging for the anti-Junta political activists that the global community keeps pressure on the Myanmar regime. Finally, the resolution has echoed Thomas Andrews, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights situation in Myanmar, who told the Human Rights Council earlier that the military had carried out crimes against humanity since taking control, and slammed the international community for failing to “end this nightmare.” He decried the “widespread, systematic attacks against the people” since the coup five months ago. Referring to the view of the people of Myanmar, he asserted that the junta is an illegitimate regime and, indeed, a terrorist scourge set loose upon them.
Another remarkable factor is that the adoption of this resolution reflects a major success of Bangladesh’s Rohingya diplomacy. Bangladesh has sheltered more than 1.1 million Rohingyas in its own soil. The country has been diligently working for a permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis, beginning with their safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation in Myanmar. The resolution has rightly praised Bangladesh for providing shelter to the displaced Rohingyas while it called on the international community to continue providing humanitarian assistance until they return to Myanmar. It is emphasized that since the massive influx of Rohingyas from Myanmar into Bangladesh in August 2017, this is the first time that any resolution on the Rohingya was adopted in the UN without a vote, due to the intense diplomatic efforts made by the Bangladesh. The ministry of foreign affairs observes that the adoption of the resolution by consensus is a big milestone for Bangladesh. During the adoption, Bangladesh Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva argued that the issue of addressing the Rohingya crisis and the protection of the human rights of Rohingyas must remain high on the UN agenda.
Bangladesh strongly pointed out that the current political turmoil in Myanmar should not detract the international community from paying due attention to this crisis and seeking a durable solution. Bangladesh urged the international community to play a visible and effective role in ensuring the return of the forcibly displaced Rohingyas with full security and dignity. Bangladesh continued pressure on different UN bodies and international community to provide a roadmap and clear direction to mitigate the sufferings of Rohingyas, particularly their repatriation in their home country. In the wake of adopting the resolution, the Bangladesh foreign minister AK Abdul Momen urged UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and international community to constructively engage with Myanmar for early commencement of Rohingya repatriation to their homeland in Rakhine. He made it clear that the Rohingyas are Myanmar nationals and they must return to Myanmar.
It is critical to reiterate that Tom Andrew, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, fiercely attacked the states who are supporting the Myanmar regime and called for the urgent formation of an “Emergency Coalition for the People of Myanmar” to stop what he described as the military junta’s “reign of terror” in the country. He stressed that it was time to the end “the failure of those outside of Myanmar to take measures that could help end this nightmare”. He raises a fundamental question: “Future generations may look back upon this moment and ask: ‘Did the people and nations of the world do all that they reasonably could to help the people of Myanmar in their hour of great peril and need?’ In his view the answer is negative. Besides, the UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet told the council that the situation in Myanmar had “evolved from a political crisis to a multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe”.
In conclusion, both Bangladesh and the UNHRC have again played a vital role in advancing the cause of the Rohingyas in times of intense geopolitical rivalry and COVID-19 pandemic by adopting the resolution with biting attacks on the Myanmar regime for its atrocities. It may be recalled that the similar resolution was adopted by the UNHRC on 3 July 2015 in the backdrop of the torture and the Rohingya influx to Bangladesh. In that resolution (A/HRC/29/L.30) on the human rights situation of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar, the Council condemned the systematic gross violations of human rights and abuses committed against all, including Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. In six years, the UNHRC has passed another historic resolution against the Myanmar regime that creates an opportunity for the international community to continue diplomatic pressure on the Military regime and its allies.
Does Indonesian have to Pay Extra Taxes within Rampancy of Covid?
Various countries in the world are slowly starting to remove the outdoor mask rule and give leeway for Covid-19 social restrictions, but it doesn’t happen in Indonesia. Indonesia is running under peculiar circumstances until July 2021. The worst scenario that has always been feared finally happened along with a surge in Covid-19 patients as many as 40,000 people per day. This fact became even more terrible when the Indonesian Government presents Draft Law Number 6 of 1983 concerning General Provisions and Tax Procedures. The government plans to impose a value-added tax (VAT) on groceries as basic necessities, education, and health services. So, how does the Government create a scenario to call this a normal policy?
In this bill, the government is known to remove several types of services that are currently included in the non-taxable objects group. The services that are removed and will be subject to VAT include health services, education, and groceries as necessities. Groceries are classified as basic necessities that are needed by many people which constructed as non- taxable object group as regulated on Article 4A paragraph (2) of Law Number 42 of 2009 concerning the Third Amendment to Law Number 8 of 1983 concerning Value Added Tax of Goods and Services and Sales Tax on Luxury Goods. As well as groceries, medical health services and educational services are also classified as non-taxable objects based on Article 4A paragraph (3) of the same Law.
The Government’s plan to add tax objects has not been submitted yet to the House of Representatives, but whatever the taxation policy takes, it must still be guided by the principles of tax collection stated by Adam Smith, which are the principles of equality, certainty, the convenience of payment, and the principle of efficiency. The addition of tax objects is out of the line with the principle of the convenience of payment, which means that the tax must be collected at the right time for the taxpayer, for example when the taxpayer has just received his income. However, if we look at the current situation, the government is implementing a policy of Restricting Community Activities which is not the right time for taxpayers to receive information on additional tax objects. People tend to need financial assistance from the Government rather than pay extra tax.
The issue of maternity tax arises when the government removes health services from the non-taxable objects. Based on the Minister of Finance Regulation Number 82/PMK.03/2012, health services include general practitioners, specialists, and dentists, acupuncturists, nutritionists, dentists, physiotherapists, and veterinarians. Furthermore, midwifery services and traditional birth services, paramedic and nurse services, hospital services, maternity homes, health clinics, health laboratories, to alternative medicine services are constructed as part of health services.
Until now, it is not explained in detail which health services will be taxed. However, if referring to that Minister of Finance Regulation, then midwifery services or childbirth costs will also be subject to a value-added tax (VAT). Here is where the dilemma comes in, childbirth is a basic right inherent in every human being which is stipulated in Article 16 paragraph (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and revealed through Article
28B paragraph (1) of the 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia which prescribe “Everyone has the right to build a family and continue their generation through a legal marriage”. As a constitutional right, the state should protect, respect, and fulfill these rights by not collecting taxes from a basic right.
In the same boat to groceries, this plan got criticism from society because it is not clear yet which types of groceries will be taxed. Based on the Minister of Finance Regulation Number 116/PMK.010/2017, the types of necessities that are VAT-free include rice and grain, corn, sago, soybeans, consumption salt, meat, eggs, milk, fruits, vegetables, sweet potatoes, spices, and sugar consumption. The collection of groceries taxes will be more effective if the groceries are classified as premium groceries and groceries that do not recognize social class (non-premium groceries). Examples of premium groceries constructed as wagyu beef, kobe beef, shirataki rice, and basmati rice which have relatively wide price ranges from local goods.
Education is also considered to be the object of VAT. This purpose is immensely counterproductive to the philosophy of education as a basic right as stated in Article 31 of the 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia. Tax collection from education opens up opportunities for commercialization in the education field. Commercialization is the process of changing and/or exploiting something for a profit. In line with the statement expressed by Milton Friedman and Frederik Van Hayek, that commercialization of education is a state of education that adheres to industrial society and market society. Education should be inclusive for the whole community to increase the education participation rate.
One thing that must be understood is that tax collection must be in line with the capacity of taxpayer. There are two approaches to measuring the capacity of each person, which are (1) objective elements, by looking at the amount of income or wealth owned by a person, (2) subjective elements, by paying attention to the number of material needs that must be fulfilled by each person. Thus, the collection of maternity taxes, groceries, and education taxes must go through a comprehensive review to avert conflict with these elements. Is the government able to clearly classify which health services are taxed, as well as groceries and education? Take a cup of your coffee, and we will see…
Stabilization And Digital Dialogues For Myanmar: Stepping Back From The Brink Of Civil War
Abstract: Five months into the military coup of 1 February, Myanmar is on an increasingly fragile trajectory with clear signs of conflict escalation. World attention tapered off after the first few weeks and shifted to other hot spots, including in the Middle East. Regional ASEAN diplomacy and western sanctions pressure have failed to provide a breakthrough while influential neighboring countries are locked in competition and preoccupied with the COVID-19 Pandemic. The weakened multilateral system seems unable to respond decisively to growing mass protests and violent repression by the military. Basic levels of protection for civilians and essential services have been eroded amid a resurging COVID-19 Pandemic.
National cohesion in Myanmar has come under severe pressure. Although the country has weathered low-intensity conflicts over the years and state disintegration is a remote scenario, regional stability hinges on peace and prosperity in Myanmar which is located between Chinese and Indian spheres of influence. Democratic transition has remained incomplete in Myanmar since 2011. Inclusive civic dialogue can help reduce tensions through leveraging communications technology for digital grass-roots engagement, especially with Myanmar’s youth. This might restore a modicum of calm and provide a conducive environment for peace talks. International friends of Myanmar and ASEAN states are well placed to provide critical support, in line with ASEAN commitments. Civic digital dialogue could also boost human capital for addressing longer-term challenges, including the impact of climate change and the Pandemic.
Evolving Conflict Dynamics- Violence Expands from the Center to the Periphery
While renowned National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, charges of corruption were formalized in June concerning a charitable foundation, in addition to alleged breaches of COVID-19 protocol and communications regulations. After some delay, a court hearing was held on 26 May. Meanwhile, the number of detained civilians grew over tenfold from the first weeks of mass protests to 6,000. On 30 June, the government released 2,300 detainees nationwide, including media and NGO workers who had not committed violent acts. The junta prepared indictments against protesters and 64 persons received death sentences as reported in media in early June.
Some 211,000 persons were internally displaced, according to recent UNHCR figures and the death toll neared 900 persons in late June, according to NGO observer groups. Since the beginning of 2021, the civilian casualty rate in Myanmar is among the highest worldwide, second only to conflicts in Ethiopia and Nigeria. Businesses were severely affected, and several factories were closed; several large international firms divested from Myanmar or are pausing investments. After a general strike in February, anti-junta protests continued in northern Kachin State, southern Dawei, Sagaing region and in the commercial capital Yangon.
A Committee representing the disbanded parliament (CRPH) was formed and a “National Unity Government” (NUG) established in April. The shadow government issued a proclamation for the release of all political prisoners, return of the armed forces to the barracks, ending the violence and accountability for those responsible for atrocities after the coup. The NUG also pledged remedial action for Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority and their rights in Rakhine state of Myanmar where over 100,000 persons had fled to safety in Bangladesh in the 2017 military crackdown against suspected terrorists.
By the end of June, military repression continued unabated. Weapons of war were used against demonstrators and neighborhood vigilante groups loyal to the authorities targeted protesters. Internet services were frequently blocked since April as the military rolled out a restrictive new cyber security law. The Facebook social media platform which was used by half of the country’s population as ubiquitous news source and messaging service was shut down. independent media outlets were shut down or fined, and over 90 journalists imprisoned. Relatively few defections from the armed forces have occurred, mostly from lower ranking navy and air force members as well as units constituted with former rebels in 2015. Some reports suggest that soldiers melted away to join the Civil Disobedience Movement in an estimated 800 total of cases, but it remains unclear how many of them ended up taking arms for the resistance.
In another more serious development, some of the ethnic minority militias in Myanmar’s border areas with long-running insurgencies against the central government have started to mobilize. There were reports that urban dissenters were joining their ranks and new ‘civilian armies’ were constituted as offshoots of the Civil Defense Movement while other protesters just sought temporary shelter among militias. Several of these groups -including the Kachin in the north and the Karen in the east- publicly denounced the coup and stated they would defend protesters in the territory they control. Other ethnic militias appeared to be sitting on the fence about fighting in urban areas. Experts believe that the territorial ethnic armies have widely diverging military capabilities and are unlikely to mount a serious challenge to the armed forces. However, ethnic militia are a possible factor in pan-ethnic solidarity supporting talks and might become ‘king makers’ in the event of a rift inside the Myanmar military forces.
On 22 June, armed demonstrators of the ‘Mandalay PDF’ group engaged armed forces in a sustained urban firefight at Myanmar’s second largest city. In areas bordering Thailand, Karen state saw intensified armed clashes in May when over 100,000 persons were displaced and some sought temporary safety in Thailand. Confrontations were also reported from Chin state bordering India and from northern Kachin and Shan states. Well-informed observers warned about a trend towards generalized revolt. unless regional or international initiatives can manage to stem the escalation. The country may have come close to becoming ungovernable and some analysts warn of impending state collapse and prolonged civil war as in the case of Syria.
International Response Patterns- Sanctions and Regional Diplomacy
The UN Security Council discussed the situation in Myanmar three times since the coup and issued a presidential statement on 10 March. The Council repeatedly called for restraint and restoring democratic transition in Myanmar but its closed meeting on 18 June 2021 fell short of deciding on an arms embargo. The Council demanded that the constitutional order should be respected but did not condemn the military coup outright, due to the position of China and Russia that defended national sovereignty. China publicly rejected sanctions as “inappropriate intervention” on 3 July during the 9th World Peace Forum held in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that the primary goal was to help Myanmar find a political solution as soon as possible through dialogue and consultation.
The UN Generally Assembly (GA) passed a first non-binding resolution on Myanmar on 18 June, which condemned the coup and called for a stop in the flow of arms to the country and the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior civilian officials. The UN Secretary-General reiterated his call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi on 1 July following mass releases of detainees in Myanmar. He also expressed deep concern over continued intimidation and violence as well as arbitrary arrests. In early July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned of political crisis in Myanmar evolving into a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe” with potential for massive insecurity and fallout in the region. The SG’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, visited neighboring states of Myanmar but was not permitted to enter the country.
Outside the UN, international responses featured moral appeals, public condemnation and the use of targeted sanctions. The G7 Foreign and Development Ministers Statement of 5 May roundly condemned the coup and called for immediate cessation of violence; the G7 pledged support to ASEAN efforts in conflict resolution. In mid-May, US, UK and Canada imposed a new round of coordinated sanctions which were expanded from a dozen military figures to state enterprises known as significant income earners (gems and timber industries). In early July, the US led additional sanctions measures against 22 members of the regime and close relatives, also targeting three Chinese companies for providing support to the Myanmar regime through business dealings with the sanctioned Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited.
EU sanctions were expanded to include public timber companies from Myanmar, aligning with earlier UK measures. The US and UK placed sanctions on the State Administration Council (SAC), the junta’s governing body while the EU placed sanctions on the Myanmar War Veterans Organization, due to its close connection with the Armed Forces. Japan warned in mid-May that assistance to Myanmar could be frozen beyond a halt of new aid programs decided in February, seeking to use its considerable leverage as a top donor for Myanmar. Canada said it imposed additional sanctions on individuals and entities tied to the Myanmar armed forces, indicating it was prepared to take further steps. New Zealand imposed a travel ban on the Myanmar junta and stopped all aid that could benefit them; effectively suspending all military and high-level political contacts with the country.
Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing remained the de-facto leader of the country. Apart from minor changes in the SAC, the junta government stayed in place. Experts assess that the army leader has no intention to curb Myanmar’s economic progress. Unlike during previous military rule in Myanmar in the 1980s, a semi-civilian composition of the new cabinet in the Supreme Administrative Council (SAC) shows that the military is prepared to ride out international pressure and pursue national development. However, analysts based in the region see a risk of Myanmar backsliding several decades and reversing gains from the democratic transition.
ASEAN Regional Leverage vs. Geopolitical Interests
Early regional reactions to the coup in Myanmar were muted, with the notable exception of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Following the ASEAN consensus principle, current ASEAN Chair Brunei appealed for respect of ASEAN’s principles of rule of law, democracy and human rights. The regional block tried to engage the junta during the 24 April ASEAN Leaders Meeting which the Burmese coup leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing attended. Yet he subsequently backtracked stating that stability was an essential precondition for ASEAN peace talks and implementing the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus from the summit. ASEAN followed up with a high-level mission to Yangon in early June to meet the junta leader again and seek his views on a list of nominees for an ASEAN special envoy for Myanmar agreed among ASEAN member states.
The junta’s foreign minister participated in a special ASEAN-China Foreign Minister’s meeting in Chongqing in early June, amid speculations that China was warming up to the military leadership in Myanmar. Chinese officials had issued veiled criticism in the early phase of the coup while parallel Chinese linkages were forged with the civilian NUG. A tuning point occurred in mid-March when protesters injured Chinese workers at a Yangon factory complex which was damaged and looted. In a scenario of widespread instability and key infrastructure under threat, China might resort to pressure NUG and the junta into a compromise, according to regional experts; some analysts point to a recent Chinese troop concentration at the important border town of Jiegao.
China’s southern Yunnan province borders Myanmar where Chin state became one of the recent flashpoints in violence. The area is important for China’s transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The plan features a high-speed train link from China to the Indian Ocean, alongside gas pipeline projects to Myanmar coastal areas, as well as the Muse-Mandalay highway. China has also pursued a mega-hydro project north of Myitkyina which was stalled in 2011 over environmental concerns and developed an industrial park for the town. In addition, Chinese investors have snapped estate and land in the Yangon area, despite restrictive rules.
China’s President Xi Yiping undertook a milestone visit to Myanmar in January 2020, where he signed 33 agreements. Myanmar’s strategic value in these schemes was recently underscored by the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in mid-January 2021 as senior-most foreign official to arrive since November’s election. In military cooperation, China as a traditional ally has taken a relatively low-key approach with Myanmar. Russia appeared more eager to capitalize on arms cooperation with senior visits demonstrating that Moscow is not beholden to western sanctions policies.
Like the many economic and investment ties between Thailand and Myanmar, other regional partners have most likely adopted a “wait and see” approach before gradually re-engaging with the junta-led government. However, Thailand voiced concerns of spillover from the violence in Myanmar, after refugees had crossed the long border; Thailand considers itself as a ‘front line state’ and has recalled its “quiet and discreet diplomacy” efforts underway.
India as Myanmar’s northwestern neighbor already hosts many refugees from the Christian Chin minority. 15,000 refugees have arrived in northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur since the coup, according to UNHCR figures. These arrivals remain displaced and are hosted by local communities. Larger waves of refugees from Myanmar would affect the delicate local political and security environment. Myanmar’s military has at times coordinated with Indian security forces to control extremists and “geopolitical intricacy” overrides India’s stand on the current crisis.
Similarly, China does not want to see spillover from Myanmar tensions upset its southern industrialization schemes. It was India that delivered the first 1.5mln doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Myanmar in mid-January when China’s global vaccine diplomacy took shape. Yet both powerful neighbors of Myanmar are unlikely to come to an understanding how to prevent a worst-case scenario, given their geopolitical antagonisms in the wake of recent US and Quad countries cooperation.
Configuring Innovative Dialogue for 21st Century- Digital Engagement with Myanmar Conflict Parties
In view of the high stakes from ongoing violence and the risk of serious escalation, the time may have come for an alternative approach in Myanmar peace support. Assisted by new technology, digital dialogue at the grass-roots level could provide an opportunity for reflection and connect segments of the population and conflict parties. Such innovative dialogue can also tap into Myanmar’s human capital, especially youth who tend to be tech-savvy and eager to express their views. ASEAN’s supportive and caring posture expressed in its 24 April Leader’s Meeting Communique lays out ASAEAN regional solidarity in a people-centered approach rather than prescriptive intervention. ASEAN is also well placed for assisting with required technology from its industrialized members and influential countries in Asia.
Newly boosted by the global switch to digital in the COVID-19 Pandemic, state-of -the-art communication technology and tools exist to connect hundreds of participants in online dialogue sessions. UN peace missions in Yemen, Syria and Libya have utilized such digital outreach to enrich ongoing negotiations and tapped into AI solutions for evaluating feedback. The work of senior negotiators might become more hybrid with online inputs and analysis, although scholars note a “missing sense of peace” in virtual interactions. On the other hand, benefits exist from greater inclusion, shorter iterative meetings, and equality in interaction. Significant peace constituencies including women, youth and minorities can be included online from the very start than in most traditional mediations.
Myanmar has fertile ground for digital grass-roots dialogue. Younger citizens, including in conflict areas have shown great skill in networked cooperation, providing practical livelihoods advice and psychosocial support for years. In view of restrictions from the junta, protesters have resorted to virtual private network (VPN) solutions to ensure connectivity. Some younger officials and members of the security apparatus may also participate in a “sovereignty enhancing” dialogue aimed at better governance and reforms. The technological challenges including interference from authorities are not insurmountable.
Accompaniment could be provided via inter-regional cooperation between ASEAN and the EU, which remains under-utilized, despite strong shared business interests. The multi-sector dialogue template (“Enhanced Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument” -E-READI) has ample room for configuring the required scaling effects in technical assistance in sectoral policy dialogues concerning Myanmar’s specific situation. Notably, Facebook and Instagram banned Myanmar’s military and military-controlled state media in late February, citing “exceptionally severe human rights abuses and the clear risk of future military-initiated violence in Myanmar”.
Pivot to a New Generation Compact in Myanmar- Tackling Global Challenges
Innovative digital dialogue as an early confidence building process can provide a platform for addressing center-periphery relations in Myanmar which lie at the core of many minority grievances. Myanmar could start developing its “new generational compact” including on regional autonomy and decentralization. The country never managed to forge a “Second Panglong Agreement” after independence and the death of General Aung San in 1948.
Social cohesion and enabling social capital for addressing global challenges of climate change and Pandemic resilience are urgent for Myanmar. The devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008 showed the country’s vulnerability to extreme weather events in low-lying coastal areas. Myanmar’s Pandemic response also requires joint mobilization, due to rising infection levels nearing peaks of last October. Medical staff were instrumental in launching the Civil Disobedience Movement; work stoppages and insecurity have affected the health sector where recent new COVID-19 restrictions are hampering humanitarian access and response. The impact has been dramatic in interrupting remote outreach on public health prevention and counseling of victims of gender-based violence.
In the absence of consensus among superpowers to find a joint formula for lending ASEAN political efforts additional clout, or tactical convergence between the US and China for stabilizing Myanmar jointly as a middle ground, innovative civic dialogue should be seriously considered. More punitive approaches may end up driving the beleaguered country deeper into the arms of China and exacerbate violent conflict. Grass-roots engagement with critical peace constituencies in Myanmar could prevent transforming the current crisis into a proxy fight between global players and second tier regional powers, including India which has asserted itself in border tensions with China and as part of the US-led Quad group of states to hedge against China’s growing influence in ASEAN and APEC Regions.
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