The Indo-Pacific is a dynamic concept that has come into the picture of great power politics. In the last two decades, an Indo-Pacific identity is increasingly becoming synonymous to a single maritime construct. Countries in the region are driven by geo-economic and geo-political interests with a constant presence of external payers. Due to its strategic relevance, China is pushing forwards its expansionist agenda by striking a historical chord and threatening interests of smaller states in the region. Vietnam has been one of the victims as well as the one to stand up against China’s advances.
According to realist theory in international relations scholarship, a country can be categorized as a middle power depending upon a state’s military strength, economic capabilities, and geostrategic position. Due to the power gap, diplomacy as a foreign policy tool is used often to participate in international politics and exert influence among regional players. Vietnam has taken charge of ASEAN Chairmanship three times since its entry and been part of significant regional building mechanisms to strengthen its commitment towards three pillars of ASEAN community. Its strategic location, growing economic and military strength makes Vietnam an important player in the region. This article makes a case for Vietnam as a rising middle power in the region that has the potential to play a prominent role in Indo-Pacific in the backdrop of its growing economy, interpersonal relations, leadership role in ASEAN and regional security order amidst escalating Chinese threat.
Leading the ASEAN Economy
In the aftermath of Doi Moi reforms, Vietnam focused on the development of a multi-sector economy. In 1989, it exported rice for the first time and today is the 4th largest rice exporter in the world. In the aftermath of Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, the country registered a strong 8.5% GDP growth rate. In 2008 it was removed from the world’s least developed countries (LDCs) and since then has been registering a consistent growth rate above 5%.
The period between 2000-2019 has seen consistent 5.5% plus growth with 6.5-7% growth in the last five years. Among ASEAN states, Vietnam had the fourth highest annual average growth rate in the 21st century, above ASEAN’s average 5.3%. In 2019, Vietnam had the second highest GDP growth rate i.e. 7% among the ten states closely following Cambodia’s 7.1%.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the world economy and shattered growth targets for the year 2020. According to recent estimates by Asian Development Bank for the year 2020, the growth projections remain at a negative 3.8% for Southeast Asia and it is preparing for an L-shaped recovery. Meanwhile, Vietnam is among the only three countries in the region to have a positive growth rate of 1.8% along with Myanmar and Brunei. In fact, Vietnam will be one of the few countries in developing economies of Asia to have a positive GDP growth rate amidst the ongoing crisis. Hanoi is targeting a growth rate of 6.5% this year.
International trade and investment has become a key factor in the region’s economic integration. According to ASEAN Key Figures 2020, intra-ASEAN trade holds the largest share in total ASEAN trade at 22.5%. In 2019, Vietnam was the third largest exporter (17.3%) and importer (17%) in the region. Over the last decade, the country has become one of the manufacturing hubs in the region with its labour and industrial policies. Vietnam is ranked 3rd in shares of manufacturing products to total exports (%) by ASEAN Member States, growing from 46.8% in 2006 to 86.4% in 2019. It also holds the largest manufacturing shares in imports of goods in 2019 at 84%. In context of FDI inflow in 2019, Vietnam is the third largest recipient among ASEAN states amounting approx. US$16.12 billion.
Political Integration and ASEAN Leadership
Post 1995, Vietnam witnessed major landmarks in international integration. First, it signed an FTA with the US in 2001 and later associated with all 12 FTAs that Vietnamese exporters can take advantage of including ASEAN plus FTAs. Second, it joined the WTO in 2007 that enhanced the country’s economic interests making it a significant player in the global economy. The pre and post 2007 share of exports of goods and services to GDP was 67% and 106% respectively. Third, it was elected as a non-permanent member in UNSC for the term 2008-09 and acted as the council’s President during the term.
Vietnam has improved its bilateral ties with countries beyond ASEAN. In February 2020, Vietnam sealed the deal with Europe on the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EUVFTA). The agreement is said to bring a significant impact on exporting firms, foreign investors, and consumers in Vietnam. It has strived forward to foster ties with Japan, India and Australia along with close ties with US, all four associated with the QUAD bloc. In 2018, it signed a new strategic partnership with Australia and with India the country shares a comprehensive strategic partnership. Both the countries have had joint naval exercises as well. With Japan they share strategic links in the last five years. It was the destination for Japanese PM Suga’s maiden foreign visit as was the case with his predecessor Shinzo Abe. In the role of ASEAN chair, the country stands ready to be the effective bridge to connect the ASEAN with countries such as the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Albania.
One important aspect of Vietnam’s political rise is its balancing act against China and the USA. Both have historical associations with Vietnam that brought ill-will to the country and both are the two most important international partners in present times. The US is Vietnam’s largest export market with a share of 23% followed by China at 15.6%. In terms of imports, Vietnam is heavily dependent on China with a share of 29% whereas the US is far below the list with a mere 5.6%. By numbers, China remains the largest trading partner with an annual trade of US$116 billion between the two countries in 2019 followed by the US at US$75.3 billion. While Vietnam maintains a trade surplus with US, there exists a trade deficit with China.
In the on-going tussle in world politics between existing superpower USA and a rising revisionist power China, ASEAN states have had a varied response. Cambodia and Laos are close allies of China while Singapore and Indonesia maintain proximity to the US. The diametrically opposite stance has invited trouble in the ASEAN bloc as Singapore and Cambodia recently exchanged a round of accusations against each other. Vietnam has adopted a different approach and is upholding the principle of ASEAN neutrality. Many IR scholars argue that Vietnam is exercising hedging against China with USA, a practice of mixing both cooperation and distance. Goh defines Vietnam’s hedging strategy as a form of “triangular politics” between Vietnam, China and the United States.
Vietnam’s political integration is incomplete without mentioning the role it plays in ASEAN.
ASEAN is home to about 650 million people, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of more than US$3.2 trillion and trade value exceeding $2.8 trillion. Vietnam has the third largest population, fourth largest area among ASEAN countries and an important geographic and economic position in Southeast Asia. Prior to joining ASEAN, Vietnam had a rather negative perception of the group in the late 1970’s for its indifference towards individual member states political structures and independent foreign policies. Vietnam’s entry into the ASEAN had two direct implications. First, it became the first country from the Indochina region to be a member of ASEAN and paved the way for Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar taking the organization to its present strength of ten. Second, ASEAN became the de facto player to uphold peace and stability in a region that has had a bloody Cold War history.
In 1998, Vietnam hosted the 6th ASEAN summit for the first time in the backdrop of Asian financial crisis that had devastated Southeast Asian economies. Under Vietnam’s chairmanship, the Hanoi Action Plan was adopted to enforce ASEAN Vision 2020. In 2010, Vietnam became the Chair for the second time of the 16th Summit. The year was difficult in particular due to aftershocks of 2008-09 global financial crises. It played a pivotal role in the roadmap for building the ASEAN Community 2015. Vietnam is credited with drawing consensus on entry of the US and Russia in the East Asia Summit, expanding the ASEAN plus Three (APT) institution into ASEAN + 8. The first ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) was inaugurated under Hanoi’s chairmanship strengthening defence and security cooperation between ASEAN and its eight dialogue partners. It was also the year when ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC). It was an important step towards “development of policies, programmes, and innovative strategies to promote and protect the rights of women and children to complement the building of the ASEAN Community”. It was also involved in building the ASEAN Community Vision 2025.
2020 marked an important milestone when Vietnam assumed the rotating Chair of ASEAN for the third time. July 28th marked Vietnam’s 25 years of ASEAN membership. On the occasion Ambassador Tran Duc Binh, Head of Vietnam’s delegation to ASEAN said, “Vietnam is one of the countries recording highest results in implementing the master plan on building the ASEAN Community. Vietnam has worked to strengthen unity and solidarity in ASEAN and elevate ASEAN’s central role in maintaining regional cooperation, peace, and stability.”
2020 has been an extraordinary year for countries around the world. In the wake of the pandemic, Vietnam has played a significant role in virtual diplomacy and formulated a COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, a Regional Reserve for Medical Supplies, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on Public Health Emergencies, and a Post-COVID-19 Recovery Plan. At a domestic level, it is one of the very few countries to successfully curb the spread of the virus. Vietnam recorded its first COVID-19 death as late as 31st July 2020, and till now (April 2021) has registered 2,833 cases and 35 deaths, one of the lowest in the world. The most notable achievement this year has been the signing of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the 15-member free trade agreement making it the largest regional trading bloc in the world. Vietnam also holds the responsibility of non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2020-2021 term elected by 192/193 votes. President and Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong said that the election is an “important recognition” of Vietnam’s roles and contributions to global and regional affairs, showing its increased position and credibility.
In the Asia Power Index 2020 conducted by Lowy Institute, Vietnam ranks 12th out of 26 countries of Asia-Pacific and 5th among ASEAN countries. While Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia stand ahead in the power index, all of them have observed a negative trend and lost out points except Thailand that remained unchanged as compared to last edition. Vietnam is the only country among ASEAN states to observe a positive trend and gained 1.3 points since last year. One of the indicators is Diplomatic influence that measures the ‘extent and standing of a state’s or territories foreign relations’ and Vietnam has gained the maximum points (+6) out of all countries. Its performance in other indicators is mentioned below.
Vietnam also holds a positive score in the power gap category that indicates that the country exerts more influence in the region than expected given its available resources.
Table 1: Vietnam’s Performance in Asia Power Index 2020
Source: Asia Power Index 2020
On the Security Front
Vietnam’s policy with respect to security in the region assesses the global situation which has been rapidly evolving into a multipolar order. South China Sea or what is called East Sea in Vietnam has been a long-standing issue in maritime security and the larger Indo-Pacific space. The dispute goes back to China’s claim to the entire South China Sea on the basis of its historic nine-dash line that predates the emergence of post-colonial sovereign states of Asia. The claims evolved into aggressive actions by the Chinese through buildup of artificial islands and growing military infrastructure that threatens the sovereignty of littoral states. Due to the geo-economic importance of the sea, China has begun to endanger commercial operations of smaller states in their respective economic zones mainly Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei, reaching as far as Indonesia’s Natuna Sea. Large hydrocarbon reserves have been found in regions like Vanguard Bank and The Ca Voi Xanh (Blue Whale) gas field that lie just 50 miles off Vietnamese coast. Vietnamese fishing industry is also threatened due to Chinese coast guard presence that has previously unilaterally banned fishing activity in the region. In 2014, a Vietnamese fishing vessel 90152 was sunk by Chinese maritime surveillance vessel that sparked national outrage in the country and led to anti-China riots. In April this year, a Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dishi 8 encroached Vietnam’s resource-rich territorial waters near Paracel Islands, called Hoang Sa in Vietnam.
Vietnam has grown militarily, its defense spending increasing from 2.23 percent of GDP in 2010 to 2.36 percent in 2018and engaged with countries including Russia, USA, India, Australia and Japan strategically. On both the national level as well as the regional level, it has reiterated the commitment towards 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for any territorial rights claimed by any country in South China Sea. Vietnam helped build the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea in 2002 and negotiations are on between ASEAN and China over an upgraded Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Cooperation with external players mainly the US for security reasons is one approach taken by the country. Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said during ASEAN-US virtual summit, “We welcome the U.S.’s constructive and responsive contributions to Asean’s efforts to maintain the peace, stability and developments in the South China Sea.”On November 25, 2019, Vietnam released a new Defense White Paper, reiterating the “Three No’s” defense policy – no alliances, no foreign bases and no aligning with a second country against a third. However, its participation within the ‘QUAD Plus’ framework that is an extension of QUAD along with with New Zealand, Vietnam and South Korea is seen by some as an alliance against rising China. Vietnam’s strategic position for the QUAD and reiteration of free and open, rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific is the current approach to set a status quo in the South China Sea for its resource interests. The 2018 inauguration of Paracel Islands Museum in Da Nangand the indication to take the legal route through legal arbitration, similar to the case won by Philippines in 2016 is how Vietnam is standing up for bullying behaviour against smaller states in the region.
In Vietnamese there is an old saying: ‘A single tree cannot make a forest’. Since the 21st century, Vietnam’s economic and political rise has been complementary to the rise of ASEAN. Foreign direct investment (FDI) and exports played an increasingly important role in Vietnam’s economic success while significant political presence in international politics is the world’s acknowledgment of its leadership role in the ASEAN and demonstration of its importance in the Indo-Pacific region.Lack of a united ASEAN front to the South China Sea issue remains one of the biggest challenges for the country. As a non-permanent member, Vietnam needs to work as a bridge between the ASEAN and UN. For a dynamic regional institution and the emerging maritime-geopolitical construct of Indo-Pacific, Vietnam needs to leverage its position and role to realize ‘peace and stability of the region’ in its truest sense.
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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