The initiative from Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah to deal directly with Myanmar’s opposition groups, including the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) and seven civil society organizations (CSOs), and to involve outside parties, such as humanitarian organizations, deserves ASEAN’s full support.
Foreign Minister Retno L.P. Marsudi worked closely with Saifuddin and their Singaporean and Philippine counterparts from to forge a united effort against junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who defied ASEAN leaders’ call to comply with the group’s five-point consensus to restore peace in Myanmar.
Their effort has worked to exclude the junta from all ASEAN official functions for an indefinite period.
But Retno is now overwhelmed by preparations for the Group of 20 Bali Summit less than two months away, and she does not have a deputy to share her burden. Entrusting her Malaysian counterpart to take the lead in realizing his initiative is good, not just for ASEAN but also for Indonesia, because it is also in November that President Joko Widodo takes over the ASEAN chairmanship from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
After attending the United States-ASEAN meeting in May in Washington, D.C., Saifuddin received NUG foreign minister Zin Mar Aung. This was the first time that an ASEAN foreign minister held talks with NUG. Saifuddin tweeted at the time that he had discussed the challenges the NUG was facing, “including humanitarian assistance, technical training and education for the Myanmar refugees”.
Early this month, Malaysia’s chief diplomat hosted a virtual dialogue with the representatives of seven CSOs, including the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN), the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) and the Women’s League of Burma (WLB). Speaking on behalf of his government, Saifuddin promised to maintain close contact and cooperation with Myanmar’s CSOs and opposition groups.
Other ASEAN members prefer a “wait and see” approach in their dealings with such groups because they realize that Myanmar is so divided, they must be extra cautious about taking an official stance. But humanitarian aid cannot wait, as Myanmar’s military has destroyed villages and other communities it suspects of sheltering supporters of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The outside world, especially the United Nations, must work with the junta to gain access to refugees, but it has refused to let international organizations provide food and other relief aid to Myanmar’s people. ASEAN should move more progressively and work closely with international groups to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those in need.
Hlaing has belittled ASEAN’s punitive acts because he believes that many other countries are more than willing to help him. So far, only Russia and China have opened their doors to the ruthless general while most have not, because the UN does not recognize the junta regime, as with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
ASEAN needs to follow up Malaysia’s initiative, including by engaging opposition forces to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar. It cannot simply demand Gen. Hlaing to respect the five-point consensus, which includes peaceful negotiations with all relevant parties in Myanmar. It must act now for the millions in Myanmar.