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Three decades of India’s ‘eastward engagement’ and a persisting set of challenges

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In this long essay, I look at how India re-connected with Southeast Asia and its regional institutional mechanisms in the post-Cold War context. This 30-year process had its own challenges and is continuing to evolve by adding newer dimensions and layers of engagement.

Year 2022 marks 30 years since India first became a sectoral dialogue partner of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and it is observed by both sides as the ‘ASEAN-India Friendship Year’. Southeast Asia is located in New Delhi’s ‘extended neighbourhood’ and lies at the centre of the Indo-Pacific, both geographically and strategically. Today, India and the ten ASEAN member-states together hold about two billion people, which is roughly 30 per cent of the world’s population. During the Cold War years, most of countries in the region were formally or informally part of the Western-led system of alliances, which acted as a constraining factor for ‘non-aligned’ India to cultivate robust ties with the region, particularly at the multilateral level.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union, a key strategic partner of India hitherto, in 1991 left a huge void in its diplomatic and geostrategic space. This was one of the key driving factors that led New Delhi to formulate its ‘Look East’ policy in the same year, which was rechristened and reinvigorated as ‘Act East’ policy in 2014. India was made a full dialogue partner of the ten-nation grouping in 1996, and six years later, in 2002, regular annual leaders’ summits were initiated, of which the latest in the series was held last year. In the early years since the opening of dialogue relations, the focus was placed on the economic dimension of ties, which diversified into commercial, security and strategic dimensions, in the course of time.

A decade ago, in 2012, India-ASEAN relations were upgraded to the level of ‘strategic partnership’. The two sides operationalised a free trade agreement in goods in 2010 and another agreement on services and investment four years later. In 2015, India set up a separate Mission to the bloc and its related forums like the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Jakarta, where the ASEAN is headquartered, to strengthen its engagement with the grouping and the regional processes centred on it. Later in 2018, in a truly historic diplomatic rendezvous, the leaders of all the ten ASEAN countries were welcomed as chief guests for India’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi.

Soft power edge

A changing world order, combined with the economic liberalisation of the early 1990s, necessitated New Delhi to look for new friends and new sources of economic capital and investment elsewhere to fill the void left by Moscow. Southeast Asia seemed to be a promising and easy-go destination. However, India’s engagement with the region is not something new, and in fact, it goes centuries back, the background of which is important to get a broad perspective on India-ASEAN ties. India has an immense amount of soft power in the region via its centuries-old Buddhist and Hindu civilizational linkages, which also happen to converge which the Sinic civilizational heritage as well.

Indian epics of Ramayana, the Mahabharata and Buddhist literature such as the Jataka Tales are still popular in many Southeast Asian countries and several tourists arrive in India from the region for religious, business, and leisure reasons. Before 1991, India had three waves of engagement with Southeast Asia since the first century C.E., transitioning through ancient, medieval, colonial, and post-colonial stages. The first wave had cultural, commercial and imperial dimensions when Buddhism reached the region via land from India and a further outreach occurred due to the expansionary policies of Tamil thalassocratic powers like the Chola Empire that extended its influence in maritime Southeast Asia, lasting until the 13th century C.E.

After a brief period of disruption in the late medieval era following the Islamic invasions into the Indian subcontinent, the second period began during the British Raj era, which saw colonial expansion and a new dimension of commercial and imperial ties. The third wave began after India’s independence from the British in 1947, which continued till 1991. As Western powers retreated from Asia following the Second World War, India tried to assert its regional role by building solidarity with the post-colonial states of eastern Asia. This period saw key initiatives under Indian leadership such as the convening of the Asian Relations Conference of 1947 in New Delhi and the Bandung Conference of 1955 in Indonesia.

However, due to the prevailing Cold War geopolitical imperatives, India’s active role in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and its limitations as an economic and military power constrained New Delhi’s options to proactively engage with Southeast Asia. The ‘Look East’ policy of 1991, in fact, constituted a fresh fourth wave of India’s engagement with the region, or re-engagement. Today, the Indian diaspora in Southeast Asia constitutes about 20% of the country’s total diaspora population around the world, numbering 18 million. This fact also plays a significant role in strengthening India-ASEAN relations.

Bridge to Asian regionalism

Since the late 1960s, Southeast Asia has been known for cultivating active mechanisms of regional integration that was brought about by the founding of the ASEAN in 1967 by five countries, namely, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Later, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia too joined the bloc, in order, bringing the total membership to 10 countries. India shares a land and maritime border with Myanmar and an exclusive maritime border with Indonesia via the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Cosying up with ASEAN in the post-Cold War context meant heralding in a new era of engagement with Asia’s regional institutions, mechanisms and processes.

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is a ministerial-level diplomatic platform set up in 1993 soon after the Cold War ended, including all countries that had been engaging with the ASEAN. It is the largest and the oldest of all ASEAN-centred institutions and has 27 members, which includes the ten ASEAN member-states, its ten Dialogue Partners, and seven other countries. India became a member of the ARF in 1996. The forum held its 28th annual meeting last year, wherein India co-chaired a workshop on implementing the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982). The founding objectives of this forum include the “fostering of constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues of common interest and concern and to make significant contributions to efforts towards confidence-building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region”.

Similarly, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) is yet another platform under the ASEAN framework involving its eight Dialogue Partners, namely, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States (collectively referred to as the ‘Plus Countries’), towards the goals of strengthening security and defence cooperation and ensuring peace and stability in the region. The inaugural ADMM-Plus was convened in Hanoi in 2010. The ADMM-Plus has been meeting annually since 2017 to allow enhanced dialogue and co-operation within the grouping and with the ‘Plus Countries’ to collectively deal with common security challenges facing the region.

India is one of the founding members of the East Asia Summit (EAS), another ASEAN-centred diplomatic forum formed in 2005. It emerged out of the ‘ASEAN-plus-Six’ mechanism, including the ten ASEAN member states, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Later, Russia and the United States too joined the EAS in 2011, bringing the total membership to 18 countries. The EAS is one of the most crucial components of the ASEAN-led regional framework, primarily because of the contribution it makes in building an environment of strategic trust in the region. Today, the EAS countries represent more than half of the world’s population and accounts for 58% of the global GDP.

India is committed to strengthening the EAS and continues to contribute positively to the forum’s goals. At the 14th East Asia Summit in Bangkok in 2019, India’s Prime Minister Modi announced a new initiative for regional cooperation, known as the ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative’ (IPOI), aimed at building new partnerships to create a secure and stable maritime domain in the region. It rests upon seven key pillars, namely, maritime security, maritime ecology, maritime resources, capacity building and resource sharing, disaster risk reduction and management, science, technology and academic cooperation, and trade connectivity and maritime transport.

Since India was not one of the Pacific Rim countries, it couldn’t be part of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), formed in 1989, or any other trans-Pacific groupings formed later. Other sub-regional groupings which India engages with selected Southeast Asian countries include the 1997-founded Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the 2000-founded Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) groupings.

Trade and connectivity woes

Beyond diplomacy, diaspora and cultural ties, there is the aspect of trade. India had signed a free trade agreement (FTA) in goods with the ASEAN in 2009, known as the ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement (AIFTA). It was operationalised the very next year. Later, another agreement on services and investment was signed in 2014 which became effective in the following year. It is now known as the India-ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. However, ever since India entered into these two FTAs, its trade deficit had risen as imports from the region sharply rose in comparison to its exports to the region.

The value of trade between India and the ASEAN region amounts to over $78 billion (in 2021). Amid exports that moved in a narrow scale, India’s trade deficit with the ASEAN has widened from $5 billion in 2010-11 to $23.8 billion in 2019-20, while India’s imports from the region have nearly doubled between 2011-12 and 2018-19. So, India’s ‘terms of trade’ with the ASEAN have worsened in the last one decade. Due to this scenario, India has been calling for a review and renegotiation of the AIFTA and has been seeking more market access for its domestic products.

There is an impending non-reciprocity in FTA concessions, non-tariff barriers, import restrictions, quotas and export taxes from ASEAN countries. India badly needs to reconfigure its trade equation with the ASEAN in the direction of maintaining a sustainable balance of trade. It is these same realities, combined with the fear of cheap products from abroad dominating Indian markets at the cost of domestic producers and traders that prevented India from joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a couple of years ago.

Connecting India’s north-eastern states with ASEAN has always been a key imperative for India’s policy choices. Although India-ASEAN relations has improved steadily since 2014, with the operationalisation of the ‘Act East’ policy, the implementation of several flagship infrastructure and connectivity projects such as the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Facility, connecting India’s West Bengal and the north-eastern states with Myanmar, and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is moving at a snail’s pace, due to persisting bureaucratic hurdles. Hence, the ties boosted after 2014 did not fetch substantial gains, as expected, in improving inter-regional trade or connectivity via land and sea.

China’s maritime presence in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean regions, India’s backyard, such as in Myanmar’s Kyaupkyu, Bangladesh’s Chittagong, and Sri Lanka’s Hambantota has compelled New Delhi to seek deeper and stronger relations with like-minded countries in Southeast Asia and recently the Quad countries (U.S., Japan, India, and Australia) for maintaining a favourable regional balance of power.

Finding own space amid regional rivalries

Last decade witnessed Southeast Asia turning out to be a major arena of U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry. Both China and the U.S. are trying to lure ASEAN countries to their respective sides by extending their influence, the former with its grand economic prospects and the U.S. through its reassurances on the region’s security. The initiation of new economic partnerships and the promise of new investments in infrastructure development such as the Build Back Better World initiative, the Blue Dot Network, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity and the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, the last two being unveiled in the recently-held Quad summit.

The ASEAN, however, is committed to avoid being caught up in between great power competitions and is too averse in taking sides. They just want to maintain the region as a zone of peace. It is in the direction of achievement of this policy, ASEAN member-states signed the ‘Bangkok Treaty’ in 1995 and declared Southeast Asia as a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ), thereby committing themselves to keep the region free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction. It is also known as the ‘Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone’. Today, Southeast Asia continues to be one of the five NWFZs in the world, even though the region lies in close proximity to nuclear-weapon states to its borders.

Even though India is one of the top-five regional powers in Asia, the United States and China continues to occupy significant space in the region’s power equations. It is said that hard power and economics always triumphs over soft power. This is exactly the case for India in its attempts to extend its influence in the ASEAN vis-à-vis the capabilities of the aforementioned two great powers. While India observes 30 years of establishing dialogue relations with the ASEAN this year, China commemorated it last year, in 2021. Southeast Asia lies in China’s immediate neighbourhood and it has a looming maritime dispute in the South China Sea with at least five ASEAN member-states. But despite this fact, China continues to be ASEAN’s largest trading partner since 2009, while India stands the fifth.

The ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ is an ambitious Chinese mega-project that is part of the larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in which Southeast Asia is a key link to connect China to the world. It was announced by President Xi Jinping during his maiden visit to Indonesia in 2013 and most of the ASEAN countries are part of this China-led project, despite the maritime dispute. Moreover, several Southeast Asian countries have been taking part in the 2002-initiated Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), held annually in the permanent venue of Boao town in China’s southern Hainan province, which hosts high-level dialogues of leaders from the government, business and academia from around the world, and is dubbed as the ‘Asian Davos’.

In the recent years, ASEAN data show that its member-states have become more and more dependent on China for trade. All member states, except Singapore, have trade deficits with China today. But ASEAN countries are well aware that depending too much on Beijing would mean that they can be susceptible to Chinese bullying in the region’s disputed waters. This is where the role of the United States has to be taken into account. Washington has maintained its military presence in the region for decades now. Right from the World War years, the U.S. has maintained its naval forces in Southeast Asia as an extension of its overwhelming presence in the Pacific, but China’s military is fast-modernising too, to catch up with the U.S. power, not only regionally, but globally as well.

This U.S.-China great power rivalry is most visible in the South China Sea, that lies in between Southeast Asia and China’s southern coastline, where Washington frequently conducts freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) to challenge China’s unlawful claims that pose a serious threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of ASEAN nations. India too has wider stakes in the South China Sea, as nearly 55% of India’s trade with the Indo-Pacific region passes through these waters. New Delhi’s interest is primarily to keep the region’s trade routes safe and secure, thereby upholding regional stability, freedom of the seas, and a rules-based maritime order.

Amid this ongoing scramble for influence in the region, the Indian Navy hosted ‘Exercise Milan’, a multilateral naval exercise off the coast of the south Indian port city of Vishakhapatnam, held earlier this year, with more than 40 navies from around the world participating, including the U.S. Navy. Of these, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia have been participating since the inaugural edition of the exercise in 1995. The Indian Navy is a crucial player in the region and frequently engages in bilateral naval exercises and passage exercises (Passex) with the naval forces from South China Sea littoral states, including Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Lately, ASEAN-member Philippines has entered into a key defence pact with India, signing a $375 million deal to buy India-made ‘BrahMos’ missiles, chiefly to secure its coastal defence against rising Chinese belligerence. This deal has a consequential bearing on India-China ties, India-ASEAN ties, and Philippines-China ties as well. India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar paid a visit to the Philippines, in February this year, two weeks after the BrahMos deal was agreed upon. Interestingly, even though Indian and American interests converge in Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific, the BrahMos is an Indo-Russian joint venture. This has set a precedent for other threatened countries like Vietnam to follow.

At the same time, as China’s presence continues to grow in India’s backyard, New Delhi is compelled to give reciprocal signals by augmenting its own naval presence in China’s backyard, as Indian naval vessels regularly call on Southeast Asian ports underlining its operational reach, readiness, and solidarity with friendly states in the region. While India’s ‘Act East’ policy seemingly struggles in swift and timely implementation of specific projects, there is a convergence of interests with Southeast Asian countries with regard to being subjected to Chinese power projection in the recent years.

ASEAN, as a whole, is a formidable economic force in the world today and has a promising future ahead. People-to-people ties and cultural links with Southeast Asia will always be in India’s favour. But, the real challenge for New Delhi is adapting to an ever-changing and uncertain geopolitical environment and regional power dynamics, how competitive its economy can be, how far it can play the role of a constructive player in the region’s security, and how proactively it can deliver on its policy promises, particularly with regard to trade, infrastructure, and connectivity. If these don’t go smoothly, I suspect whether soft power edge alone can ensure a favourable strategic space for India in the region, which is faced with increased competition and scramble for influence, particularly when economic dynamism is already a criterion of competition between India and the ASEAN, rather than of co-operation.

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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Myanmar: Crimes against humanity committed systematically

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Crimes against humanity continue to be systematically committed in Myanmar, with ongoing conflicts severely impacting women and children, according to a UN report released on Tuesday.

The evidence gathered to date by the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), which is outlined in its Annual Report, indicates that sexual and gender-based crimes, including rape and other forms of sexual violence, and crimes against children have been perpetrated by members of the security forces and armed groups.

Crimes against women and children are amongst the gravest international crimes, but they are also historically underreported and under-investigated,” said Nicholas Koumjian, Head of the Mechanism.

Deep dive collection

Since starting operations three years ago, IIMM has collected more than three million pieces of information from almost 200 sources, according to the report.

These include interview statements, documentation, videos, photographs, geospatial imagery and social media material.

The report reveals that children in Myanmar have been tortured, conscripted and arbitrarily detained, including as proxies for their parents.

“Our team has dedicated expertise to ensure targeted outreach and investigations so that these crimes can ultimately be prosecuted,” said Mr. Koumjian.

‘Widespread’ violations

According to the publication, “there are ample indications that since the military takeover in February 2021, crimes have been committed in Myanmar on a scale and in a manner that constitutes a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population” and the nature of potential criminality is also expanding.

This includes the execution by Myanmar’s military of four people on 25 July 2022, which was carried out after the report was prepared.

Perpetrators of these crimes need to know that they cannot continue to act with impunity. We are collecting and preserving the evidence so that they will one day be held to account,” said Mr. Koumjian.

Rohingya

This latest analysis was released just two weeks before the five-year commemoration of clearance operations that resulted in the displacement of nearly one million Rohingya people.

The Rohingyas have faced decades of systematic discrimination, Statelessness and targeted violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Violent attacks in 2017 triggered an estimated 745,000 Rohingya, including more than 400,000 children, to flee to Bangladesh.

Most of the Rohingya who were deported or forcibly displaced at that time are still in camps for refugees or internally displaced persons.

“While the Rohingya consistently express their desire for a safe and dignified return to Myanmar, this will be very difficult to achieve unless there is accountability for the atrocities committed against them, including through prosecutions of the individuals most responsible for those crimes,” Mr. Koumjian explained.

“The continued plight of the Rohingya and the continuing violence in Myanmar illustrate the important role of the Mechanism to facilitate justice and accountability and help deter further atrocities.”

Dedicated work

Meanwhile, with the consent of its information sources, IIMM is sharing relevant evidence to support international justice proceedings currently underway at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Mechanism was created by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 to collect and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and other violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011.

It aims to facilitate justice and accountability by preserving and organizing evidence and preparing case files for use in future prosecutions of those responsible in national, regional and international courts.

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Will Evolving Relation Between Arakan Army and NUG lead To Any Political Change in Myanmar?

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photo: Wikipedia

On May 18, Myanmar’s Civilian National Unity Government (NUG) held an online meeting with the Arakan Army in the Rakhine (Arakan) state. Arakan Army Chief Major General Tuan Mrat Naing and his Deputy Brigadier General Neo Tun Aung spoke for about two hours with Foreign Minister Jin Mar Aung of the shadow government’s coalition relations committee and Democratic leader Wu Min Ko Ning. The NUG is believed to have taken the initiative in an effort to engage with armed groups that could help bring down Myanmar’s military regime. Basically, the current situation in Myanmar and the activities of the shadow government were discussed. This sudden alliance of NUG with the Arakan Army leads to the question: Is the political situation in Myanmar taking a new turn?

The current situation in Myanmar

After the military seized power in Myanmar, the anti-coup resistance group (PDF) and allies of their ethnic armed group have been fighting the junta for more than a year, with Kachin, Karen, Karenni, and Chin ethnic groups, in particular, supporting the PDF. Myanmar’s military has not been able to contain the opposition, despite unwarranted attacks, lawsuits, assassinations and arson. On the contrary, in many parts of the country, the administrative system has collapsed, while their troops are losing due to killing and fleeing in the face of resistance. Resistance groups have, however, also failed to oust the junta or drive it out of their area altogether resulting in neither side having any decisive win yet. On the contrary, around 600,000 people have been displaced since the coup due to the civil war. About 30,000 people have taken shelter in India and 6,000 in Thailand. Though Myanmar’s economic prospects have almost shattered, the military sustains as strongly as its former military rulers. The impact of Western sanctions is negligible as multinational companies from China, Russia, India, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea are doing their usual business. On the other hand, The NUG government is trying to launch its own administrative system in central Myanmar (especially Sagaing, Mandalay and Magway-centric) through its armed forces PDF.

Relations between the Arakan Army and the NUG

Following the coup, in April last year, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), formed the NUG as a shadow government with lawmakers and allies of ethnic minorities to challenge the junta’s legitimacy at home and abroad. With the promise of a federal democratic union, if military rule ends, the NUG is trying to build trust with ethnic armed groups (EAOs) to fight the military rule. In this effort, NUG is establishing relations with the Arakan Army. On May 15, NUG issued a statement on the occasion of Rakhine National Day and expressed its condolences to the people affected by the military and political conflict in Rakhine. It has also promised to work with relevant agencies to establish justice. The shadow government sent a message of greetings and worked together on April 10, the 13th anniversary of the founding of the Arakan Army.

However, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party’s relationship with the Arakan Army has not been good in the past. While came into power in 2015, the NLD-led government did not play a significant role in promoting democracy, human rights, and the autonomy of ethnic areas. Even having secured the largest number of seats in the Rakhine state, the NLD refused to allow the Arakan National Party (ANP) to elect a state chief minister. When war broke out in Arakan between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar army in 2018, the NLD clearly sided with the army, which angered the Rakhine people. The NLD administration at the time agreed to the world’s longest Internet shutdown in Rakhine State, branding the Arakan Army as a terrorist organization and canceling elections in large parts of Rakhine State. These steps by the Aung San Suu Kyi government further tempted the Arakan Army to transform its demand for autonomy into a struggle for liberation and independence.

Relations between the Arakan Army and the Military Junta

The post-coup civil war situation spread throughout Myanmar, but the Rakhine state was an exception. A ceasefire agreed upon between the Military and the Arakan Army in November 2020 has kept the region relatively calm ever since. The Arakan Army has discouraged mass protests against the coup, and the Rakhine state remains relatively peaceful while other parts of the country were engulfed in violence. As a result, while the military was busy suppressing resistance across the country to consolidate its power, the political wing of the Arakan Army, the United League of Arakan, established administrative control over two-thirds of the state (especially rural areas) and introduced its own tax system and judiciary. To ensure stability in Rakhine, the junta also, as part of its political and military strategy, withdrew the Internet blackout in Rakhine and withdrew the Arakan Army from the list of terrorist organizations after the coup, and released many political prisoners associated with it.

But, the Arakan Army’s recent reluctance to meet directly with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and its currently evolving relational proximity to the NUG has made the military rethink its strategic and operational orientations toward the armed group to some extent, prompting the military to step up security in Rakhine and urge locals not to contact the Arakan Army. In response, the Arakan Army is also threatening the head of the Myanmar Army’s Western Command, accusing it of interfering in internal affairs. There have also been a few minor clashes between the two forces, such as an exchange of fire, signaling likely future disability.

Change on Course

Although the Arakan Army has not yet institutionalized a dream of independence of independent Arakan, they are committed to gaining autonomy. And the Arakan Army has an endless opportunity to gain international support by involving the Rohingya in gaining autonomy purposefully demonstrated by Arakan Army Chief General Tuan Mrat Naing while making positive comments in favor of Rohingya repatriation and civil rights to the Rohingya. NUG has already announced that it will return civil rights to the Rohingya, with the implicit intent of gaining international recognition. It has even supported the ongoing jurisdiction in the International Court of Justice on the ethnic cleansing campaign of the Myanmar army against the Rohingya.

The Myanmar army has been pursuing a policy of procrastination with respect to the Rohingya repatriation, effectively to gain the support of the Bamar tribe in line with its long-standing policy of feeding Buddhist Nationalism for political scores. However, the experience of the Bamar people being persecuted by the junta in the post-coup period has created an anti-military attitude in the Bamar tribe itself. Now the military is hanging the Rohingya repatriation issue as a trump card in the international arena though they have the potential for international sympathy by repatriating the Rohingya.

 If the Arakan Army changes its current silent stance in favor of the NUG, the landscape of Myanmar’s internal politics may change. Realizing that, NUG is trying to gain the support of the Arakan Army. Now evolving relational proximity between the Arakan Army and NUG will likely invigorate the already growing collective resistance further against the oppressive Junta regime. With the potential for further change in the already complex political landscape in Myanmar, now the question is:  How much will the military Junta change its current policy orientation, be it to the people’s democratic aspiration or rights to the Rohingya minorities?  

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18 Months Under Military Rule: What can ASEAN still do about Myanmar?

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Authors: Teh Zi Yee & Nory Ly*

18 months after the military coup, the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar has become an economic, political, and humanitarian disaster for the country with no end in sight. There have been mass protests, armed resistance, and mass killings in the country since the military seized power on 1 February 2021.

According to the United Nations as of June 2022, over 14.4 million people need spontaneous humanitarian assistance, and more than one million people have been displaced internally. In addition, the Myanmar military junta has killed hundreds of protesters and detained thousands of activists and government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The military junta has also drawn international condemnation over its recent execution of four democracy activists. While ASEAN has been seen as a key player in bringing peace to Myanmar with the Five-Point Consensus reached in April 2021, the bloc has failed to achieve a breakthrough in issues related to the situation in the country. 

The first three-day trip to Myanmar by Cambodian Foreign Minister and ASEAN Special Envoy Prak Sokhonn was seen as relatively unsuccessful as the special envoy was only allowed to meet certain junta-aligned figures, and the trip did not come with any breakthroughs. Similarly, the special envoy’s second official trip to the country was denied access to key stakeholders on the issue, but the trip was at least concluded with some progress, notably on the expediting of the delivery of humanitarian assistance. As a regional organization, it is within the interest of ASEAN as a whole that Myanmar’s crisis be resolved. Below are five recommendations for ASEAN to tackle Myanmar’s worsening crisis:

1) Review the non-interference policy amid the Myanmar crisis

The non-interference principle, a decades-long policy of ASEAN, has resulted in the “hands-off policy” or the so-called “wait and see” approach of some ASEAN countries towards the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar. It has been argued that ASEAN prioritizes the non-interference principle over democracy and human rights as a non-intrusive regional organization because some of its member states have undemocratic regimes. 

While the non-interference principle guarantees ASEAN member states’ independence and sovereignty, it also limits the bloc’s capability to give a forceful collective response to resolve the dismal political crisis in Myanmar. It is encouraging to see that Malaysia’s Foreign Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, has once openly called on ASEAN to rethink its non-interference policy amidst the Myanmar crisis, but it will not be easy for the bloc to change the non-interference policy since each ASEAN member state has taken their respective stance on the situation. 

It is good that ASEAN took the unprecedented step of not inviting the military regime and its foreign minister to the ASEAN summit and ministers’ meeting, but there is still a need for engagement. ASEAN member states need to continue to invite “non-political” Myanmar representatives to participate in formal diplomatic dialogues and discussions until the regime makes acceptable and significant progress on the 5PC. In addition, ASEAN as a whole will have to review its non-interference policy through diplomatic talks and use a more flexible approach that allows any forceful actions to be taken to tackle the situation in Myanmar, including suspending Myanmar’s ASEAN membership if necessary. Currently, ASEAN member states are locked and tied by their firm commitment to the principle of non-interference. As long as ASEAN sticks to the non-interference policy, it will be difficult for the bloc to address the Myanmar situation effectively.

2) Strengthen the Five-Point Consensus 

ASEAN as a whole has been criticized for being relatively soft on the military junta, which leads to little meaningful progress made on the Five-Point Consensus (5PC). While the ASEAN special envoy reaffirmed the implementation of the 5PC during his second visit to Myanmar, the viability of the 5PC has been questioned by critics. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has once criticized Southeast Asian governments for not doing enough to push the military junta to adhere to the 5PC, urging them to put stronger pressure on the country’s military administration to end violence against its people and move back to the democratic path.  

At this point in time, the most noticeable progress made is the delivery of humanitarian assistance, but the other important commitments of the 5PC will also need to be measured and monitored closely, including constructive dialogues among “all parties” concerned and immediate cessation of violence in the country. 

Since the implementation of the 5PC, there has been no inclusive or fair consultation between all key stakeholders in the ASEAN-junta dialogue. It is imperative that the bloc progressively reviews the consensus in order to uphold the leverage and shape it more effectively to begin an inclusive political dialogue that includes all the relevant stakeholders. The bloc could also, if possible, set deadlines on the 5PC so as to regularly monitor the progress and achieve the desired results of the consensus while assessing the situation. Setting a clear timeline enables the tracking of the progress on the 5PC and holds the junta accountable for adhering to the consensus. 

3) Impose sanctions and restrictive measures on the Myanmar junta

The United States, United Kingdom, and European Union have imposed a series of sanctions on individuals and groups linked to Myanmar’s military junta in response to the military coup against the democratically elected government. ASEAN governments can consider imposing appropriate sanctions on the Myanmar military if the military-led government continues to commit numerous abuses against the population in the country and does not free the government officials and activists. 

These sanctions can target Myanmar armed dealers and companies responsible for supplying the Myanmar military regime with weapons and equipment. ASEAN governments may also consider imposing restrictions on these individuals’ financial transactions, such as suspending access to their financial accounts if they have such bank accounts in any of the ASEAN countries. Measures can also be taken to prohibit these military junta-aligned individuals and entities from trading and doing business with individuals and regional companies across Southeast Asia if the military junta continues its brutal campaign of violence against the people of Myanmar. The greater the international sanctions imposed against the military junta, the higher the likelihood of bringing them to the negotiating table and ending its oppression in the country. 

4) Engage with the National Unity Government 

The National Unity Government (NUG) is Myanmar’s shadow government formed by representatives from the National League for Democracy led by Suu Kyi and others after the military coup. In October 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to recognize the NUG and its parliamentary committee as the only legitimate representatives of the country. 

Saifuddin has once proposed engaging with the NUG informally as part of the bloc’s efforts to end Myanmar’s crisis, and the move was commended by Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country. The other ASEAN countries should consider joining Malaysia in taking decisive steps to engage with the NUG representatives and the other relevant stakeholders through informal diplomatic dialogues if there is still no significant progress made by the military government to implement the 5PC. 

The ASEAN governments may also consider offering to hold a few meetings with the NUG representatives in their respective countries to show support for the NUG. This approach would help ASEAN play a more active role in stepping up pressure on the military junta and bringing them to the negotiating table. While the military government fails to cooperate with the international community to stop the violence against its own people, the bloc should instead work and engage with the NUG and other key stakeholders to resolve the crisis and restore democracy in the country.

5) Provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar

As many Myanmar citizens are facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis due to the economic stagnation after the military coup and the spread of COVID-19, additional humanitarian aid is needed to help the people of Myanmar. The UN announced the 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) for Myanmar on 30 January 2022, appealing to the international community to assist the US $826 million to meet the humanitarian needs of 6.2 million targeted people or 11 percent of the population. However, only 10.5 per cent of the HRP has been funded as of June 2022. It is encouraging to see that the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre) has been working on providing immediate humanitarian aid to Myanmar. After the first official visit, the ASEAN Chair conducted the Consultative Meeting on ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance to Myanmar in May 2022 to discuss a more efficient method of ensuring responsive humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar. 

On top of that, ASEAN governments should also proactively engage the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, to establish a humanitarian coalition that includes the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other humanitarian partners for better humanitarian coordination. Additionally, ASEAN governments can also provide humanitarian aid through local humanitarian networks, community-based organizations, and ethnic service providers. As the humanitarian crisis is worsening in Myanmar, it is important for ASEAN as a whole to improve its response to better tackle the humanitarian crisis in the country. 

Addressing the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar requires some degree of openness and stability in the country as well as joint efforts by neighboring countries to deliver aid to the Burmese people via the Thai-Myanmar border as an alternative channel. While the military junta is blocking international humanitarian groups from delivering desperately needed humanitarian aid to millions of displaced people in the country, the bloc should work together with the international community to press the junta to end its abuses and to allow aid to be delivered. 

*Nory Ly is Director of Research and Project Management for the ASEAN Youth Advocates Network (AYAN) Cambodia. Her research interests include U.S. foreign policy, Southeast Asia diplomacy, international security and defense, and Indo-Pacific diplomacy.

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