Southeast Asian governments should urgently revamp their response to Myanmar’s abusive junta by coordinating action with the broader international community, Human Rights Watch said April 22. Despite adopting a “five-point consensus” on the crisis a year ago, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has failed to fulfill its pledges or take meaningful steps toward pressing the junta to end its human rights violations.
“Myanmar’s junta has spent the past year committing atrocities in utter disregard for its commitments to ASEAN,” said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The ASEAN countries leading on Myanmar – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore – should immediately alter their course to focus on protecting people’s rights and freedoms rather than helping the junta remain in power.
At a summit in Jakarta on April 24, 2021, the nine ASEAN leaders and Myanmar junta chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, agreed to five points: an immediate end to violence in the country; dialogue among all parties; the appointment of a special envoy; humanitarian assistance by ASEAN; and the special envoy’s visit to Myanmar to meet with all parties.
In the year since, Min Aung Hlaing has defied each point while overseeing a brutal nationwide crackdown aimed at suppressing the millions of people opposed to military rule.
Two days after the consensus agreement, the junta walked back its endorsement, announcing it would consider the “suggestions made by ASEAN leaders when the situation returns to stability.” Rather than halting attacks as called for, the junta ramped up its abuses. Junta violations since the coup include mass killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians that amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Security forces have killed over 1,700 people, including at least 130 children, and arbitrarily arrested over 13,000. The military has expanded abusive operations in ethnic minority areas, displacing more than 550,000 people.
Instead of heeding the consensus by allowing aid delivery, the junta has deliberately blocked humanitarian assistance from reaching populations in need as a form of collective punishment.
The five-point consensus, meanwhile, has become a pretext for governments such as the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, and European Union member states to delay real action under the guise of waiting for ASEAN leadership, Human Rights Watch said.
The junta has exploited the international community’s deference to the regional bloc, which has a long record of neglecting its responsibility to protect the people of Southeast Asia under its principles of noninterference and consensus.
ASEAN appointed Brunei’s second foreign minister, Erywan Yusof, as its special envoy to Myanmar last August. His planned visit to the country in October was canceled when the junta denied him access to Aung San Suu Kyi and other detained civilian leaders, a precondition of his visit and requirement under the consensus.
The junta has indicated it will continue to block efforts to meet with Suu Kyi and other detained individuals, or with entities it has declared “unlawful,” including the shadow civilian government, the National Unity Government (NUG).
In an unprecedented censure by the bloc, ASEAN barred Min Aung Hlaing from its biannual summit in October, with only a non-political representative invited to attend. Singapore announced it was a “difficult but necessary decision to uphold ASEAN’s credibility given the unsatisfactory and highly limited progress in the implementation of the ASEAN Leaders’ Five-Point Consensus.” The junta ultimately declined to attend.
Myanmar’s refusal to meet the consensus commitments has exposed fractures within ASEAN. Several ASEAN countries – notably Malaysia and Indonesia, often alongside Singapore and the Philippines – have publicly criticized the junta’s intransigence, calling for a continued ban on political representatives from future summits.
However, Cambodia, this year’s ASEAN chair, has renewed engagement with the junta, with Prime Minister Hun Sen visiting Myanmar in January, the first foreign leader to do so. The current special envoy, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, met in late March with Min Aung Hlaing and other junta officials despite their refusal to grant access to Suu Kyi.
Prak Sokhonn’s claims of “meaningful outcomes” were immediately belied when Min Aung Hlaing, in his speech on Armed Forces Day, March 27, announced that the military “will no longer take into account negotiation with the terrorist groups and their supporters,” referring to the NUG and anti-coup movement, and will seek to “annihilate them to an end.”
On January 28, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called the international response “ineffectual,” stating that “the actions taken by the UN Security Council and by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been insufficient to convince Myanmar’s military to cease its violence.” In her March report to the Human Rights Council, Bachelet noted that despite the consensus, ASEAN leaders “have not achieved tangible results.”
Leading ASEAN countries, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, should work closely with other governments to develop a clear, timebound approach to press Myanmar’s junta toward reform, including increasing restrictions on its foreign currency revenues and weapons purchases.
ASEAN should signal its support for a UN Security Council resolution instituting a global arms embargo, referring the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, and imposing targeted sanctions on junta leadership and military-owned companies.
US President Joe Biden, who will host ASEAN members at a summit in May, should press Southeast Asian leaders to abandon their failed consensus approach and encourage greater cooperation with other countries promoting stronger action against the junta’s rights abuses.
Over 50,000 refugees from Myanmar have fled to Thailand and other neighboring countries since the coup. Those governments should end all forced returns of asylum seekers and instead ensure refugees receive access to aid and international protection procedures, as well as facilitate emergency cross-border aid.
“For a year, governments around the world have stalled taking action on Myanmar by standing behind ASEAN’s hollow words – and have nothing to show for it,” Pearson said. “They need to adopt strong measures to deter further atrocities and hold the military accountable, not a flimsy consensus that’s proven its futility.”
Photo credit: iStock/ Rudolf Ernst. Nov 16, 2019. Burmese people demonstrating for Aung San Suu Kyi in Bagan.