By Lisa Cornish
Reports of a “people’s defence force” being established in Myanmar to take on the military junta has been described as the act of a country that feels abandoned by the international community.
“For the people of Myanmar … there is nobody coming to help them to stop this violence,” Myanmar democracy activist Khin Ohmar said in a webinar to the Lowy Institute on Friday. “If nobody is able to help them and stop this violence, they have no other options left but to defend themselves.”
It has been over three months since the military forcefully took control of Myanmar, seeing top political leaders and government officials including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint put in detention. Violent protests erupted in response — and still continue.
Last month a special summit was held by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which called for an end to the violence and the appointment of an envoy with military Senior General Min Aung Hlaing representing Myanmar at the talks — a move that was criticized as an act that could be seen as legitimizing military rule internationally.
“Min Aung Hlaing, who faces international sanctions for his role in military atrocities and the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, should not be welcomed at an intergovernmental gathering to address a crisis he created,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said before the meeting. “ASEAN members should instead take this opportunity to impose targeted, economic sanctions on junta leaders and on businesses that fund the junta, and press the junta to release political detainees, end abuses, and restore the country’s democratically elected government.”
The end result was a “Five-Point Consensus” agreed to by all participants — including Myanmar’s military rule — which Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told reporters was a strategy “considered helpful” by Hlaing.
For the people’s movement in Myanmar opposing Hlaing and the military rule, it was an outcome that again had them feeling alone in their fight.
“People have been calling out for the international community to help immediately to stop the violence, to prevent further atrocities by this military junta,” Ohmar said. “But that is not coming — not from ASEAN, not from the United Nations, not from the Security Council.”
Can ASEAN help Myanmar?
ASEAN has been seen as a key forum in bringing peace to Myanmar, but it is a forum that Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia with the Council on Foreign Relations, said is not designed to broker peace.
“I think that one just can’t expect that much from ASEAN,” he told Devex. “Any organization that runs by consensus and is mostly authoritarian regimes is going to be reluctant to do very much in such a situation.”
Despite this, Scot Marciel, former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, told the Lowy Institute that ASEAN was “one of the few entities that has a chance to pry open the door a little bit” to make progress. A special envoy announced as part of the Five-Point Consensus needed to be appointed to engage directly with the military, National Unity Government, and other parties — with ASEAN needed to be willing to enforce consequences if they continue to ignore the international community.
“Without some painful consequences for the generals if they fail to cooperate, I think it’s really unlikely that they will,” he said.
The limitations of ASEAN meant the United States, Australia, and other countries needed to continue to work with and in support of ASEAN rather than say expect them to “fix” Myanmar. “I don’t think it’s fair to ASEAN,” Marciel said.
Thailand and Singapore were two countries Kurlantzick identified as having “a fair amount of leverage over the Myanmar junta” that could be influential in ending the violence.
“Those countries could utilize that leverage bilaterally to push the Myanmar junta to come to the table with the NUG, and to stop the violence and release political prisoners,” he said. “On a bilateral basis, those countries may be able to do more, and be more willing to go farther than ASEAN would ever go as a unit.” China and Japan were other countries he said could have more impact than ASEAN.
Can there be peace with the military?
In discussing the coup, Singapore’s prime minister said the resolution would need to come from the people of Myanmar in cooperation with the military. “The armed forces are a key institution in Myanmar and you cannot just say we put them out of the picture and then we carry on without them. It is not possible. The society will split, and the remaining system cannot function. So that is for Myanmar to decide.”
To Ohmar, the military is continually the “stumbling block” to democracy after also being responsible for coups in 1962 and 1998. And the international community needed to recognize them as a problem.
“It is important for the international community not to normalise this coup, and not to recognize or cooperate with this junta,” she said. “The people’s movement is very strong and vibrant. The current movement is extremely resilient and strong, and so determined also, that the civil disobedience movement has not effectively prevented this military from controlling the administration of the government, banks, hospitals, and other sectors.”
To bring peace in Myanmar, Ohmar said people want to see the military “completely out of politics and business” and are fighting for that.