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Southeast Asia

Myanmar’s democratic experiment on a murky path

Aung San Suu, ICJ/Frank van Beek

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Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) claims victory in the November 8 election, the second freely-contested poll since Myanmar broke away from complete military dictatorship in 2011. But, the military-aligned Opposition party refuses to concede. As it turns out, the country’s democracy stares at a gloomy prospect.

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The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, with its 37 million eligible voters including 5 million first-timers, went to polls on November 8 in its second free and openly contested elections since the former British colony came out of military dictatorship in 2011. But, the army still yields considerable influence in the ruling establishment.

Incumbent State Counselor (equivalent to the role of a prime minister), the75-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)claims to have won the election held in earlier this week to retain power.

But, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the Opposition refused to accept the results terming it as ‘unfair’ and called for a fresh vote, adding up to the political turmoil in presumably Asia’s newest democratic experiment.

Suu Kyi is still the country’s most popular politician, the youngest daughter of Aung San, father of the modern nation of Myanmar. And her party, the NLD, has a strong nation-wide presence, particularly among the majority ethnic Bamars, who makes up 70% of the country’s population.

In its first free election held in 2015, the NLD had won a landslide victory improving the prospects for institutionalization of democracy in the predominantly Buddhist state. However, whichever party wins, it has to share power with the military for which 25 % of non-elected parliamentary seats are constitutionally reserved for, and additionally three key ministries in the government.

In total, 87 parties competed in the 2020 election. Many were ethnic parties, and most of the other parties were founded by Suu Kyi’s former aides who broke away from her later. Historically, the military has resisted attempts aimed at reforms that would reduce its power. It was in 1962 Myanmar fell to a military dictatorship that would remain in power for the next five decades.

Suu Kyi returned to then Burma in 1988 after completing her studies abroad. Witnessing the abuses of the military junta, she led the calls for the country’s democratization. In the aftermath of the pro-democracy protests, she formed the NLD as a political platform to discuss democracy and human rights.

Even though the NLD contested and won the elections held in 1990 the military refused to accept the results and prevented a civilian government from forming. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the military in the next year.

She continued her struggle and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was held in house arrest for almost two decades with intervals in between. Elections were held again in 2010. The military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, and a nominally civilian government was installed, ending nearly five decades of military rule.

Four years later, in Myanmar’s first free and openly contested election in 2015, the NLD won a landslide victory, a sign of Suu Kyi’s popularity among the masses. Burmese people respectfully called her ‘Amay Suu’ (Mother Suu) or simply ‘the Lady’.

The renewed political system paved the path for an economic recovery and development, reaffirming that an inclusive democracy can deliver prosperity. But, the government’s treatment of ethnic minorities, curtailment of press freedom, and looming intolerance to the ethnic insurgencies attracted criticisms from around the world.

In 2017, a black stain clouded the Suu Kyi government’s image as it approved a military crackdown on the 1.1 million-strong Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority belonging to the Rakhine state on Myanmar’s western coast, accusing them of militancy, and led to at least 750,000 of them fleeing to nearby Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere, eventually leading to a refugee crisis and many internally displaced too.

Deprived of citizenship or statehood, the Rohingyas are widely seen in Myanmar as illegal ‘Bengalis’ even though they have lived in the predominantly-Buddhist country for generations. The Rohingyas were subjected to ‘clearance operations’ by the military including arson, rape and extra-judicial killings. The United Nations consider them as the most persecuted minority in the world.

Since 2015, the Suu Kyi administration has arrested scores of students, artists and farmers, simply for expressing their political views in the past five years. Her democratic ideals gradually disappeared,owing to the military’s continuing influence on her decisional autonomy as the head of government and possibly her continued political leadership itself.

Year 2019 saw the former Peace Nobel laureate nose-diving from a champion of democracy and human rights icon to genocide denier when she defended the crackdown on Rohingya militia while appearing on behalf of the Burmese government at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, denying all charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing against her government and the military.

Western-led organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations had expressed their disappointment with the Lady’s changed behaviour that contradicted the very ideals she previously stood for during her struggle against the junta-rule in the 1990s and 2000s. Similar concerns have been expressed by a handful of other organisations and countries the West, as well.

Following the 2020 election, the EU commended the high voter turnout and peaceful polls but also called for the full inclusion of all ethnic, religious and minority groups of the country, hinting atthe Rohingya crisis.

With Buddhist ultra-nationalism thriving with hate and fear mongering monks dominating public discourse with an opaque power sharing arrangement between the civilian and military ruling classes, Myanmar’s internal democracy and social cohesion between the majority and the minorities lie on a murky path.

With the Lady effectively playing second fiddle to the military, Myanmar stares at a gloomy future. Rising Chinese economic interest in the Bay of Bengal littoral state could also prove detrimental to the democratic project’s long-term prospects and the region’s stability.

Bejoy Sebastian is an independent journalist based in India who regularly writes, tweets, and blogs on issues relating to international affairs and geopolitics, particularly of the Asia-Pacific region. He also has an added interest in documentary photography. Previously, his bylines have appeared in The Diplomat, The Kochi Post, and Delhi Post.

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Southeast Asia

Cambodian Prime Minister’s Visit to Myanmar: Weakening Role of the ASEAN?

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Image source: Wikipedia

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently visited Myanmar for two days despite a wave of condemnation that his visit undermines ASEAN and legitimizes Myanmar’s deadly regime. Hun Sen is currently the chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2022, and is expected to lead ASEAN in diplomatic activity on how to navigate Myanmar’s political situation. As expected, Hun Sen was welcomed by the Myanmar officials, including Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, and was given a guard of honor. Accompanying Hun Sen are donations of medical equipment to fight Covid-19, comprising three million face masks, 200,000 N95 masks, 100,000 goggles, 30,000 personal protective equipment (PPE) suits, 30,000 face shields, 3,000 plastic boots, 50 ventilators appropriate for an ICU setting, 50 patient monitors and 50 oxygen concentrators. He was the first foreign leader to visit the country since the Myanmar military overthrew the democratically elected party and jailed it’s leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Since Feb 1, at least 1,435 people have been killed by the Tatmadaw in ruthless crackdowns on democracy protests. Conflict has also escalated in the nation’s border zones creating a humanitarian disaster where tens of thousands of people have been fleeing for their lives. Prompted by Myanmar’s exclusion from the bloc’s summit in 2021, the premier has repeatedly signaled his intent to bring the country back into the ASEAN fold, arguing that the economic union was “incomplete”.

Why has the Cambodian Prime Minister visited Myanmar, a nearly pariah nation in the world? Traditionally, Cambodia is a time-tested ally of Myanmar. This country has remained behind Myanmar solidly in times of crisis and challenges. Particularly, the current Hun Sen leadership is close to the military Junta of Myanmar. Cambodia has a different view about Myanmar and it’s a deeply pro-Junta as Hun Sen believes that ASEAN did not operate very smoothly in 2021 on the Myanmar issue. As the ASEAN chair, Hun Sen is determined to find a way to halt the violence and maintain the “ceasefire” in Myanmar while pursuing the bloc’s five-point consensus and bringing in humanitarian assistance. In his words, we cannot stand by passively while Myanmar falls apart and that we must find a way to resolve the stand-off between the opposing sides there and take advantage of all opportunities to pursue negotiations.

Although apparently the Cambodian leader focuses on political crisis in Myanmar, he has no concern for democracy, human rights and brutality of the military regime. He has no concern for the Rohingyas or any minority groups, which suits interests of Myanmar regime and its allies. Cambodia has launched a diplomatic blitz to rehabilitate the Junta first in ASEAN and then at the global level. Before taking over the revolving annual chairmanship of ASEAN, Hun Sen declared that he wanted the Burmese junta to be represented at the bloc’s meeting. In responding to questions of whether Cambodia can resolve the issue of the Myanmar junta, Hun Sen mentioned that any resolution would have to come from Myanmar itself, saying that the regional bloc was only one part of helping the member nation find a solution. “It isn’t based on whether Cambodia can resolve it or not, but Cambodia will try to compromise the situation of Myanmar to return it to a better situation.

Hun Sen is trying to use his personal influence as one of the oldest leaders in the region who is in power for more than 36 years and who even supported Vietnam’s invasion of his country in 1978. His own leadership in Cambodia is also deeply criticized, so his diplomatic role can also help him legitimizing his power in one of the small but historic nations on earth, Cambodia. Hun Sen often refers to ASEAN’s long-held convention of not interfering in each other’s internal affairs as an excuse of not creating any pressure on the Junta government. He plainly promotes the idea that under the ASEAN charter, no one has the rights to expel another member.

Support for the Hun Sen Initiative

The visit of Hun Sen enjoys support from some members of ASEAN and outside. Cambodia enjoys strong endorsement from two powerful regional partners of ASEAN and members of ASEAN Plus Three, China and Japan. In a statement of Japan’s MOFA, it is stated that Japan welcomes Cambodia’s active engagement as ASEAN Chair on the situation in Myanmar, and both ministers shared the view to coordinate closely. Another close ally of Myanmar, China, is also strongly in favor of Hun Sen and Cambodia, as well as Myanmar. The Chinese foreign ministry official, Wang Wenbin states that China appreciates Myanmar’s readiness to create favorable conditions for ASEAN’s special envoy to fulfill his duty and [he] works toward effective alignment between Myanmar’s five-point road map and ASEAN’s five-point consensus. In his words, “China will fully support Cambodia, the rotating chair of ASEAN, in playing an active role and making [an] important contribution to properly managing the differences among parties of Myanmar”. Members of ASEAN such as Thailand and Vietnam have strong support for Hun Sen visit. Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said that ASEAN member-state Thailand’s top diplomat had sent a “congratulatory message” saying, “he strongly supported the outcomes of the Cambodia-Myanmar joint press release”.

Against the Visit

Rights groups are calling the visit a charade. They openly argue that by failing to insist that he would meet with all parties to the conflict, including imprisoned political leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, PM Hun Sen has demonstrated a clear authoritarian orientation that all issues can be sorted out in closed door talks between dictators. They argue that such kind stance of Hun Sen threatens to undermine the very fragile ASEAN decision that Myanmar political authorities cannot participate in future ASEAN events unless they abide by the 5 Point Consensus agreed by junta supremo General Min Aung Hlaing in April 2021. Activists also argue that with the false confidence generated by this ill-advised visit, the serious worry is the Tatmadaw will see this as a green light to double down on its rights abusing tactics seeking to quell the aspirations of the Burmese people. The worrying fact is that ASEAN has been making some efforts to stabilise the political conflict in Myanmar since the 2021 coup, but many view Hun Sen’s visit undermines this progress. Understandably, anti-coup activists and leading members of Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government, have also condemned the visit across social media. The most outspoken ASEAN members against the visit are Indonesia and Malaysia who led the process in 2021 to keep the Junta leader, General Min Aung Hlaing out of ASEAN process for his blatant breach of 5-point consensus to which he was also a party.

Who has benefited from the Visit?

Undoubtedly, it is the military Junta of Myanmar who has gained exclusively from this visit orchestrated by the pro-Junta members within and outside of ASEAN. Myanmar and Cambodia are particularly happy with the outcomes of the visit. In the first place, the Myanmar Military has already achieved a huge diplomatic advantage from the visit of Hun Sen as he became the first foreign leader to visit Myanmar and meet the regime’s leader, Min Aung Hlaing, since the military overthrew the country’s elected government in February 2021. Meanwhile, the two leaders discussed bilateral relations in a 140-minute meeting in the capital of Naypyidaw and they agreed that the ASEAN Special Envoy could be involved in the Myanmar peace process. Myanmar believes that Cambodia will rule with fairness during its chairmanship this year of the ASEAN. To Myanmar, there were “good results” from the Cambodian leader’s visit that boosted the military leadership as they argue that international pressure on Myanmar had not dialed down, but Myanmar would not bow to it.

Despite the satisfaction of Myanmar and Cambodia, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah criticized Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen for taking unilateral action in meeting the leader of Myanmar’s junta. The foreign minister further added, “We would expect that he could have at least consult – if not all – a few of his brother leaders as to what he should say.” He reminded that ASEAN position would not change that until there is clear progress on the five-point consensus Myanmar’s representation at the Asean summit and related summits at the end of the year should remain non-political. Indonesia is another powerful member of ASEAN also criticized that visit and identified it as a futile exercise.  

Another immediate outcome of the visit is postponement of the first ASEAN meeting known as The ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat (AMM Retreat) initially scheduled on Jan. 18-19, 2022, in Siem Reap province under Cambodia’s 2022 chairmanship. Although COVID 19 was shown as a reason behind this decision, it is the division among the bloc’s members over Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar has played a vital role behind this new development. Discords within ASEAN over Hun Sen’s trip to Naypyidaw and a potential invitation to the Myanmar junta’s foreign minister to attend the ASEAN diplomats’ retreat might be why some ASEAN members chose not to attend the meeting. Precisely, the issue is members’ intense disagreement over ASEAN chair’s invitation to the Myanmar military-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin have created an impasse. It may be mentioned that Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore had backed shutting out the coup leader from the regional bloc’s top summit in 2021 when Brunei was the Chair of the bloc.  Analysts fear that the postponement effectively delays the official endorsement of Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn as ASEAN’s new special envoy for Myanmar.

By visiting Myanmar and meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, Hun Sen legitimized him and at the same time, weakened the role of ASEAN in playing a constructive role in the Myanmar crisis. The military leader in Myanmar had promised, among other things, to end violence and give an ASEAN special envoy access to all parties in the Myanmar political crisis, but he has done none of those things. Hun Sen has reversed the stance of the previous Chair Brunei, which created positive pressure on the Myanmar regime. Now the visit has questioned the credibility and limit of ASEAN to continue its meaningful and effective diplomatic role in mitigating the crisis in Myanmar, which has adverse impact on the future of democratic movement and the possible repatriation of the Rohingyas.

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Laos Prime Minister visit to Vietnam

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Lao Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh (front, centre) arrives at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi on January 8 morning (Photo: VNA)

Laos Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh along with a high-ranking delegation visited Vietnam from January 8 -10 to strengthen ties with its neighbour country. The official visit of Laos Prime Minister to Vietnam ushered in a new phase of interactions and outlook in friendship between the two neighbourly countries of Indochina. The Laotian prime minister would also usher in the era long celebration of the friendship between Laos and Vietnam in the year 2022. Given the fact that the two countries of Indochina have suffered the after effects of the pandemic COVID-19 in the year 2021, and have decided to enhance their partnership in select areas for protecting the mutual interest and forging cooperation between the parties, the government and developing people to people interactions. Vietnam has taken cognisance of the fact that the neighbouring countries require support both in terms of medicines, diagnostics and other health equipment which was required during the times of crisis.

Vietnam had given medical equipment and diagnostics kits  worth US$2.2 million to Laos, and also sent a few of its medical personal to assist the Laotian patients and Vietnamese  overseas citizens in Laos. At the times of crisis, even Laos has given Vietnam nearly US$300,000 for pandemic containment response and even the private sector in Laos came forward for giving 1.4 billion dollars  to the Vietnamese communities located closer to the  border of the two countries.  Between Laos and  Vietnam there has been economic and development cooperation  under that there are more than 209 projects under which Vietnamese firms  have invested more than $5.16 billion in Laos.

In terms of education, training and developing capacities the two countries have assisted each other and Vietnam has offered more than 1200 scholarships to Laotian  officials and students for enhancing their knowledge and capacities.

Since last year the interaction between the two countries has been more profound and there has been a visit of party general secretary, presidents, and prime ministers of the two countries. In August 2021 Laos general secretary and president Thongloun Sisoulith paid an official visit to Vietnam. During the visit the discussions were held with regard to improving ties and elevating ties to the next level. One of the important agenda points which have been discussed was bringing about reforms and ensuring national construction and defence between the two countries. The party general secretary appreciated the extensive reforms which have been carried out in Vietnam in the last three and a half decades after Doi-Moi(economic reforms programme initiated in 1986). The two sides also discussed developing conducive conditions for mutual development and ensuring stability and prosperity in Southeast Asia. The issue of development in Mekong subregion and developing interactions at World Trade organizations were in the agenda too. One of the important highlights of the visit was strengthening cooperation and coordination with Cambodia so as to promote the CLV developmental triangle area. Laos and Vietnam also share the resources of Mekong River and it has become imperative for the two countries to develop institutional links and coordination mechanisms in this context. The two sides were also keen on developing defence ties and addressing challenges such as cross border crime an undertaking joint border patrol.

Following this visit, President Phuc visited Laos in his new term and the discussions were held between the two counterparts on COVID-19 pandemic cooperation and undertaking special efforts particularly in regional organisations as well as in the United Nations. During that visit nearly 14 cooperation documents were signed between the two ministries particularly in the fields of security, defence, drugs control, power exchange, and mineral exploration. The visit also opened new vistas of cooperation between the two sides and but trust the need for special solidarity and comprehensive cooperation. During the visit the 43rd meeting of the Vietnam Laos intergovernmental committee was also held and the two sides also decided on the cooperation strategy for the next decade (2021 to 2030). In fact, one of the important highlights of the visit of president Phuc has been the wide coverage which has been given by the media in Laos and also highlighting the special friendship between the two nations.

This visit of the Laos Prime Minister forms the basis of solidarity, political acknowledgement, and confidence between the two parties in the Indochina. Vietnam has also helped Laos in building its National Assembly which was worth 111 million USD dollars. Vietnam showed urgency and immediate support when Laos was facing widespread effects of COVID-19 pandemic. In one of the statements which was made by the Ambassador of Laos in Vietnam, he stated that this visit will build up foundation for a comprehensive partnership between the two nations in the year 2022. He added that this visit will help in deepening ties related to science and technology, culture, education, knowledge building security and defence ties as well as political interactions. The two countries have convergence is with regard to developing the age end of ASEAN meetings in the year 2022 as well as looking for better development avenues in the Mekong subregion. The Vietnam Laos friendship and solidarity year 2022 would help in better management of trade relationship, use of Vietnamese sea ports by Laotian businessman and exploring transport connections through the East West corridor.

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Vietnam’s contributions as non-permanent member of UNSC

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Vietnam has joined the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the period 2020–2021 and during this period it was expected that Vietnam would be raising issues related to the regional development, challenges with regard to the pandemic, building consensus on sustainable development goals, and addressing issues related to maritime and regional security. In one of the statements which have been made by the permanent representative of Vietnam to the United Nations, he has clearly stated that Vietnam has been able to secure cooperation from the other members of the UNSC on issues related to objectivity, unity and transparency, and made a good case with regard to the legitimate interest of relevant parties in South China Sea. Vietnam has aspired to make the United Nations as a people centric approach and stressed on finding reasonable and sustainable solutions to settle maritime disputes through dialogue, and highlighted humanitarian challenges to the most vulnerable groups in the international society. Vietnam strongly supported the UN Charter in the maintenance of international peace and security. It was also very vocal with regard to protection of infrastructure which was critical to people’s livelihood.

In one of the messages which was sent by President of Vietnam Phuc following the conclusion of Vietnam’s term as non-permanent member of UNSC, it is stated that in the New Year Vietnam completed the term fulfilling the trust that was bestowed upon it by the international community when it got 192 out of and 193 votes for securing a non-permanent seat in the UNSC. He stated that Vietnam has always stressed on maintaining international peace and security and also urged the nations for building up consensus with regard to the pandemic and after effects caused by COVID-19.

Vietnam during the meeting on maritime security (held in August under the UNSC chairmanship of India) also suggested three important measures which included involvement of international organisations in regional conflict zones, undertaking consultative measures through dialogue mechanisms and also stressing on people centric approach so as to protect communities living in the coastal zones. Vietnam’s President Phuc also stated that the UN Charter and international law should be protected at all times. During the two-year stint with the UNSC, Vietnam projected its foreign policy in terms of self-reliance, promoting peace and friendship among nations, strengthening multilateral structures, and expanding its relations with other countries of the world. In his message he also stated that Vietnam has now become a more active and responsible stakeholder in international dialogue and would be taking responsibilities which would strengthen institutions such as UN.

Vietnam is also aspiring to become a strong and prosperous middle power country by the year 2045 when Vietnam will be celebrating hundred years of its independence. The adroitness of the Vietnam’s diplomatic community and the party cadres have helped in elevation of Vietnam’s international stature and enhance ties with a number of countries representing in the UN. Vietnam steadfastly advocated for a world free from wars and conflict, and developing common objective of international peace along with removing poverty and inequalities.

During its stint as the chair of the UNSC in April 2021, Vietnam demonstrated a strong affinity to the international community and highlighted the issues which are of common concern for the mankind. Vietnam also highlighted the need for strengthening dialogue between the UN and regional organisations, and addressed one of the important issues of unexploded landmines and after effects of explosive remnants of the world wars.

Vietnam made a strong case for respect and recognition for international law and implementation of the charter enshrined under UNCLOS 1982. In fact, Vietnam also raise the issue of woman in peace and conflicts aspects and   the collateral damage of the climate change in conflict zones. During the chairmanship of Vietnam, the pandemic effect became profound and, in that context, Vietnam showed diplomatic skilfulness in promoting international peace and security due to the pandemic conditions. Vietnam, during its stint as the chair of the ASEAN in 2020, has already explored the possibilities with regard to holding online and off-line activities and therefore its experience came very handy in UNSC to explore potential of online and off-line activities together.

Vietnam raised very pertinent questions with regard to the protection of civilians and critical civilian infrastructure in crises zones. One of the important achievements which was enshrined in Vietnam’s tenure was the adoption of the International Day of Epidemic Preparedness. This was fully supported by all UN member states and the resolution was adopted worldwide. This International Day of Epidemic Preparedness was meant to prepare all organisations including private and public sector to address any gaps in preparedness and coordination as well as creating awareness among people.

Among the list of priorities which have been issued by the Vietnam for the year 2020-2021 tenure was primarily focused on peaceful settlement of disputes, strengthening of implementation of Chapter VI of the UN Charter, addressing the after effects of armed conflict, cooperation under the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, and highlighting tangible solutions in mitigating the effects of climate change which are related to international peace and security. All in all, one can say that Vietnam has very deftly managed its position as non- permanent member at UNSC, and has also supported countries like India in addressing issues such as maritime security at the global level. This has generated lot of interest and international support which was instrumental in adopting common protocols and future agenda for protecting the global commons.  

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