Saturday

6th Mar 2021

Opinion

Myanmar: the EU needs to play the ASEAN card

  • Democracy protests in February. Europe's ASEAN friends should be reminded of their own commitments in their dealings with Myanmar (Photo: Ninjastrikers)

Two weeks after the coup d'état in Myanmar the path to a return to a civilian government or any form of power-sharing remains unclear.

The junta is faced, as in 1988 and 2007, not only by conventional protests but also by an amorphous leaderless, social-media inspired movement.

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But the extent of opposition is much more profound.

The military coup seems to have inflamed and united a diverse and ostensibly depoliticised society. There seems to be an across the board rejection by the people of Myanmar of a return to military dictatorship.

The civil disobedience movement englobes bodies as diverse as the Myanmar National Football team to elements of the sangha (monkhood).

With widespread strikes involving some 15,00 civil servants from 24 ministries as well medical personnel and teachers, the total distrust of the junta is patent. Strikes by railway workers, air-traffic controllers and even taxi drivers accompanied by the "car-breakdown movement" to block roads and bridges from the military and police, mean the country is literally being paralysed.

Above all the military has engendered an elusive national unity against itself with a convergence between the Bamar majority and the 'ethnic nationalities'.

The nationwide banging of saucepans and drums after the 8pm curfew to ward off the evil spirit of the Tatmadaw sees no sign of abating.

Under the 2008 constitution it had drafted the military already had significant power with 25 percent of seats in the parliament and control of three key ministries: Defence, Borders and Home Affairs.

However, this seems not to have been enough.

The leader of the junta, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is using the playbook of his Thai counterparts.

The Tatmadaw has declared it is taking power as a temporary measure in order to restore democracy following the malevolence (sic) of the political party(ies) in power. However, the Thai generals also claim to be defending the monarchy.

This is a problem for the junta.

In the eyes of the Burmese people, the closest Myanmar has to a monarch is Aung San Suu Kyi, the previous de facto president, and leader of a party that won some two thirds of the vote and 83 percent of the seats in the election of November 2020.

Step forward, ASEAN

While the military may be deaf to the entreaties of the West, they are keen to have the acquiescence of their fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

It was, after all, under the military leadership of then prime minister, General Khin Nyunt, that Myanmar joined the association in 1997 as a means of losing its pariah status.

Its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014 marked a watershed moment in the process of democratisation.

Yet, membership of ASEAN has been used as a shield against criticism from its neighbours.

Prior to 1997 they were quite vocal about Myanmar's treatment of ethnic minorities, however once it was part of the ASEAN club, these criticisms became muted.

By evoking, its sacrosanct principle of "non-interference" ASEAN even provided diplomatic cover for the genocidal acts committed against the Rohingya in 2017.

On the other hand, ASEAN has been quite proud of its mediation with the junta. After cyclone Nargis struck in 2008, ASEAN spearheaded confidence building measures with the generals.

'Good Cop, Bad Cop'

Southeast Asian leaders claim that the political opening of the country followed only after ASEAN made its voice heard. We would argue that is was a three-pronged combination of a 'bad cop' approach from the West, a 'good cop' approach from ASEAN and an intermediary position adopted by Japan that prompted the start of democratisation.

In this context the EU needs to react at two levels.

On one level, it needs to join with the United States, the United Kingdom and other like-minded democracies in imposing targeted sanctions against the military leaders and their families.

The two major conglomerates controlled by the military, Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, must be the subject of particular attention.

The people of Myanmar have already begun a boycott of some of their products and services.

But the EU has, unlike the US and the UK, the possibility of functioning at the inter-regional level.

This involves using the lever of its relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the EU's oldest inter-regional relationship dating from 1972. The EU has various institutional options available to do so.

'Put strategic partnership on ice'

The European Council could go beyond the sanction's regime agreed at the summit of 22 February and propose the non-recognition by all 27-member states of the military regime as the legitimate government of Myanmar.

Prior to 2014 such non-recognition meant the EU boycotted several annual ASEAN-EU summits and caused Myanmar to forfeit its first turn at the ASEAN chair in 2005.

The European Commission should put on hold the implementation of the EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership signed on 1 December 2020.

After all this SPA was partly premised on the democratic transition in Myanmar.

The European Parliament could go beyond motions condemning the military junta and in expressing solidarity with the people of Myanmar. It could call for a special summit with the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), with which it has held semi-regular bilateral meeting since 1979, to air views on the situation in Myanmar.

It should be made abundantly clear to Myanmar' fellow ASEAN members that the return to total power of the military in Myanmar sullies the reputation of the association as a whole.

After all the "promotion of democracy" figures seventh in the list of principles and priorities in the ASEAN Charter.

Europe's ASEAN friends should be reminded of their own commitments in their dealings with Myanmar.

Author bio

Marco Bünte is professor at the Institute for Political Science, Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen- Nuremberg. He has written widely on Myanmar’s tutelary regime.David Camroux is honorary senior research fellow at Sciences Po (CERI), Paris, where he teaches both on contemporary Southeast Asia and on EU-Asia relations.They are co-editors of the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs. Their present research is being conducted under an EU Horizon 2020 project, CRISEA, which examines contemporary regional integration in Southeast Asia.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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