All eyes turn to Jakarta this Saturday as ASEAN leaders gather for an emergency meeting to discuss Myanmar’s bloody crisis. This is the first real attempt, by anyone outside Myanmar, to end the tragic violence, which erupted following the Feb. 1 military coup. More than 700 people have been killed and thousands arrested as the military suppressed, often brutally, dissenters and anticoup protesters. Naturally, the rest of the world is pinning its hopes and expectations on this in-person ASEAN Summit.
The meeting, an initiative of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, makes no lofty claims about resolving the complex political crisis in Myanmar. According to ASEAN insiders, Indonesia is seeking a humanitarian pause to end the violence, which would allow humanitarian aid to flow to Myanmar, facilitated by other ASEAN members. This will create space, which is now nonexistent, for dialogue pertaining to more substantial political issues.
Unfortunately, the summit is being dodged by attendance problems, which could be problematic since all ASEAN decisions must be made by consensus. Leaders of Brunei Darussalam (current ASEAN chair), Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Cambodia, as well as host Indonesia have confirmed their participation. Thai and Philippine, and perhaps Laotian, leaders are sending representatives.
Myanmar junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has accepted the invitation, prompting criticism within and outside Myanmar that ASEAN is giving legitimacy to the military and its brutal actions against its own people. The creation of the National Unity Government of Myanmar, announced by opposition forces last week, complicates the issue of Myanmar’s representation at the summit. But as Evan Laksmana of the Centre for Strategic International Studies said in an interview with The Jakarta Post, it’s important that ASEAN leaders talk to the perpetrators of violence in Myanmar, and that Min Aung Hlaing’s presence in Jakarta should not be seen as recognition of the junta. The call for humanitarian pause will be directed at the general.
Can the Jakarta summit deliver its “modest” target of ending the violence in Myanmar? The noninterference principle and the consensus mechanism in making decisions have, in the past, made ASEAN notorious when it comes to making swift decisions. ASEAN was not designed to deal with emergency and countries have little leverage to influence other members, even as the ASEAN Charter calls on members to respect freedom and democracy.
Much then depends on how the Myanmar general responds to pressures during the meeting and how convincing Jokowi and other ASEAN leaders are in making their case that the violence must end for other ASEAN members to assist with aid and future dialogue involving all the stakeholders to address the political crisis.
The world is giving ASEAN this one shot at resolving the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN leaders must show that they have the ways and means of resolving a crisis befalling a member of the ASEAN community. The message to the Myanmar junta should be clear: Give peace a chance.