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‘What we can all do is to keep the attention on why we all still need to care about Myanmar’

1 FEBRUARY 2024 | REPORTING ASEAN

Myanmar is entering its fourth year since the military coup of 1 February 2021. Its multiple crises continue, a mix of economic difficulties and a humanitarian catastrophe at a time when armed conflict and anti-junta resistance has now spread to most of its regions. 

Many see the best chance thus far of a turning point in the battlefield in the large-scale Operation 1027 offensive that the Brotherhood Alliance launched in northern Myanmar in October 2023.

At the same time, the external environment around Myanmar has shifted as well in the last few years. There is less international media attention on Myanmar and more conflicts in the world, such as in Ukraine and now, Gaza. ASEAN continues to be dismissed by many when it comes to the ability to put pressure on the junta, called the State Administration Council (SAC).

But in the diplomatic arena, ASEAN has used language and taken steps on the Myanmar crisis that it has not done before. These include restricting the SAC’s attendance at high-level summits, which is an “unprecedented” step, Moe Thuzar, coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme of the Singapore-based ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, points out.

There is value in ASEAN’s role, “warts and all”, as well as the need to find and use as many entry points as may be possible, she explains.

Are there points of hope? She said: “The determination of different, diverse communities and groups to forge a political future together, a recognition that they are all in it together, and the awareness of the need to discuss and find the way forward despite differences, and to break free of the narratives that the Myanmar military has tried to entrench over the past decades.” 

Reporting ASEAN’s Johanna Son talks to Moe Thuzar of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

Reporting ASEAN’s Johanna Son: Myanmar is much lower in the news agenda these days, internationally and even regionally. Part of that is due to the news cycle and how big mainstream media work, but on the third anniversary of the 2021 coup, what are your thoughts on this ‘fatigue’ in interest and attention? 

Moe Thuzar: I think it is about how attention or focus gets distracted. For example, just around the coup’s one-year mark, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drew much attention and anxiety. And in October 2023, after the coup had entered a third year on February 2022, attention and interest on Operation 1027 was also distracted by what was happening in the Gaza Strip after the Hamas surprise attack. 

For many countries in the West, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presented a more visible threat to regional stability and security there, and that act of aggression – violating territorial sovereignty – by a member of the P5 (Permanent Five, or the five countries that are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council), also had geopolitical implications. 

By then (the coup’s one-year mark) ASEAN’s diplomatic interventions, and the unprecedented decision to limit the State Administration Council regime’s participation at high-level ASEAN meetings like the Summits, and later, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meetings, linking that decision to the SAC’s failure to fully implement the Five-Point Consensus, had probably indicated to the international community at large that there was a regional organisation trying to deal with an internal challenge that has regional spillover impact. 

Myanmar’s humanitarian needs continue to go up but the UN has been receiving lower percentages of its fund requests, at a time of more conflicts in the world. In several global reports, Myanmar is also the lists of crises to watch in the year. What does this lesser attention tell you, and what does that mean for people and groups that work to keep Myanmar on the agenda?

Moe Thuzar: I think regional media still pay some attention, and what we all can do through our various analyses and commentaries is to keep the attention on why we all still need to care about Myanmar, for the people still caught in conflict situations, for those displaced by conflict, for those fleeing conflict and persecution, and for those in precarious situations facing threats to any or all of the dimensions of human security  (economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, political).  

That Myanmar is on several lists of crises to watch this year shows some recognition of the multi-dimensional (and multi-year) nature of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar.  

Without the Five-Point Consensus – warts and all – ASEAN would not have a platform or mechanism to intervene in Myanmar.

Three years since the coup, how important to daily survival and life are resources coming from aid, humanitarian support – food, health – given the collapse of the state functions, and the economic challenges in Myanmar? Could you tell us examples of what you hear from inside?

Moe Thuzar: Well – in December, the World Bank issued the second of its twice-yearly Myanmar Economic Monitor reports for 2023. Just reading the Executive Summary shows a bleak picture:- deteriorating economic conditions exacerbated by escalation of conflict, placing more pressure on any projected recovery. 

There are falling incomes, falling living standards for the bulk of the people, and high inflation as a result of the falling exchange rate of the Myanmar kyat. Power shortages have affected individuals and businesses (including the manufacturing sector). FDI has reached a new low. 

I read too about the attempt to tax Myanmar people overseas —

Moe Thuzar:  The recent decision reviving the requirement to pay tax by non-resident Myanmar nationals working overseas has been very unpopular, as for the past decade Myanmar workers overseas had been exempt from paying income tax.  All this is happening despite the SAC regime’s attempts to try and deflect blame, or to manipulate market forces to their advantage. So, I don’t think there is much confidence in the regime’s policy approach.

ASEAN’s Five-point Consensus is not seen as making much of a difference in post-coup Myanmar, or to get a degree of ‘cooperation’ from the SAC say on humanitarian issues, or giving the Red Cross access to detainees. But it has taken steps it hasn’t done before, including downgrading representation by the SAC. Still, many have written ASEAN off. What is the value of ASEAN’s 5PC and level of engagement at this point?

Moe Thuzar:  I think we need to think about what ASEAN – as an intergovernmental organisation – can or cannot do, and its usual decades-long practice of (and recourse to) informal regional diplomacy. 

Past crisis situations in Myanmar, albeit not at the scale we have seen as a result of the 2021 coup, have inspired or motivated ASEAN to come up with creative ways of finding workable ways of constructive intervention (2008 Nargis, 2017 Rakhine crisis) and upholding ASEAN’s principles. 

The SAC’s intransigence to ASEAN’s regional diplomacy moves – with particular regard to the Five-Point Consensus priority on cessation of violence – has produced ASEAN’s strongest language used with regard to the ongoing crisis situation in Myanmar. The non-political representative criterion restricting the SAC leadership’s attendance at ASEAN Summits and/ or foreign ministers’ meetings is unprecedented. 

Without the Five-Point Consensus – warts and all – ASEAN would not have a platform or mechanism to intervene in Myanmar, so we need to look at what other creative ways ASEAN can consider or come up with, using all channels of communication with different stakeholders, and available forms of diplomacy. ASEAN Summits on 2022 and 2023 have reviewed and given further recommendations related to the Five-Point Consensus implementation, so we also need to see how the past, present and incoming ASEAN Chairs can work to give effect to these recommendations.  

Another coup anniversary is here amid a very different world, even compared to 2021. The world is much more unsettled and there are more wars at a time when humanitarian needs and displacement are peaking – Ukraine and now, Gaza. The situation in Palestine is being watched in the majority world, which sees double standards, the inability of the international community and the UN to address real-life issues, and unilateralism by big powers.

Several of these are similar concerns for Myanmar’s anti-coup groups and people, many of whom are frustrated and feel they have been left to their own devices, thus the armed resistance too. For their part, the Rohingya have long felt unseen.

International law is meant to be for all without exceptionalism, but these issues can clash with realities and different beliefs on the ground. The Rohingya issue remains unsettled in Myanmar, a sensitive question for the future too. How could the catastrophe in Gaza, and the current world order, look with a Myanmar lens, given its experiences? Are people talking about it?

The Myanmar people will probably view the Gaza crisis through a complex lens of what the NLD (National League for Democracy) government faced with regard to the genocide case brought against Myanmar at the ICJ, and the narratives on citizenship, identity and belonging (that were entrenched over decades, mainly by the military).

The ICJ’s recommendation in 2020 provided a list of provisional measures that Myanmar should comply with, including preventing genocidal acts against the Rohingya, ensuring security forces do not commit such acts, and preserving evidence related to the case. And we see similar recommendations by the ICJ recently in relation to Gaza. So, your point about upholding international law in the face of real-world challenges is very relevant. Even with legally binding rulings like the ICJ’s, the extent of compliance and monitoring that compliance need to be considered. 

What is one issue that you find has been most misunderstood by outsiders about Myanmar, or the post-coup situation?

Moe Thuzar: I think it would be about the complex decades-long civil war situation that has been going on, and the aspirations for a more federal system of government. 

Looking ahead, what gives you hope?

Moe Thuzar:  The determination of different, diverse communities and groups to forge a political future together, a recognition that they are all in it together, and the awareness of the need to discuss and find the way forward despite differences, and to break free of the narratives that the Myanmar military has tried to entrench over the past decades. 

The fact that the resistance against military rule has been sustained for the past three years points to that, as well as to a resilience upon which efforts for (and continued commitment to) a new political arrangement should continue to be based despite challenges. 

(END/Reporting ASEAN)

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