Myanmar coup threatens Asean unity, opportunities

Myanmar appears to be spiraling out of control as violence escalates against demonstrators calling for restoring democracy and for releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies. The political crisis there has also threatened key interests of Asean or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. For now, that regional bloc struggles to craft a strong and united position against the assault on democracy and human rights.

Asean, of course, includes Myanmar and nine other countries, and the Philippines is a founding member. As a group, it has managed to come up with only a bland statement.

Brunei, which currently holds the rotating chairmanship, said, “We encourage the pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar.”

Statements of individual member states varied in intensity. Singapore is “gravely concerned” over the violence in Myanmar, where police reportedly fired at protestors with rubber bullets as well as live rounds, stun grenades and teargas.

Indonesia has actually led the push for greater Asean involvement in Myanmar. Jakarta, according to its foreign minister, sees the bloc as “the most effective mechanism to help Myanmar deal with this delicate situation.”

Other members were restrained. Cambodia and Thailand said the coup was an internal matter for Myanmar. That was not a surprise given their history with strong military leaders ascending to political leadership and their own domestic issues with pro-democracy movements.

Manila’s position has been mixed. On the one hand, it came out strong in a statement that said, “The Philippines will settle for nothing less than, and nothing else but the complete restoration of the status quo in which Myanmar had made so much progress.” But recently, the Philippines also announced it would not support a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution denouncing the coup and Miss Suu Kyi’s detention.

Few might be surprised by the ambivalence, given the criticisms made by human rights advocates against the Philippine government’s war on illicit drugs, as well as the propensity of some top leaders to clamp down on media, including The Manila Times. Whether those criticisms are valid, the impact on Manila’s weakened opposition to the military takeover in Myanmar seems apparent.

Why Myanmar matters

What happens in Myanmar matters not only because democracy is important to all of humanity but also for regional and national interests.

Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan told CNA in an interview: “Instability in any corner of Southeast Asia threatens and affects the rest of us. It’s such a pity because, in fact, the prospects in Myanmar were bright, the prospects for Southeast Asia are robust in the next 20, 30 years.” He added, “We need to seize this opportunity and not let this political strife in Myanmar, with all its attendant violence and negative consequences for its people, distract and disrupt us from the future that’s awaiting all of us in Southeast Asia.”

The Philippines actually said something similar. “Myanmar made important strides toward democratization in the past decade with the political presence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, constitutional constraints on her key political role notwithstanding,” according to a Department of Foreign Affairs statement.

Economically, Asean is one of the most dynamic regions in the world. The bloc’s combined gross domestic product (GDP) is forecast to grow 6 percent in 2021. That presents opportunities for its 655 million combined population that include Filipinos.

Asean also promotes peace and stability. The organization deserves credit for the absence of war in the region over the past several decades. Of course, peace is critical in fostering an environment that encourages investments and development in general.

Despite its policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of its member states, Asean is not completely paralyzed. Over the past 12 years, Myanmar has allowed the bloc to address some of its internal problems, including the havoc created by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and recently in the planned repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

The escalating violence in Myanmar also requires urgent intervention. On this point, the Philippines should do its part to ensure that Asean does not fail.

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