SINGAPORE — The situation in Myanmar is growing more violent and polarized. If the situation continues without urgent intervention, the safety and security of civilians will deteriorate rapidly and a window for dialogue between the military and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and its supporters will close further.
If this scenario happens, Myanmar will almost certainly implode.
The Civil Disobedience Movement — or CDM, leading the protest against the military coup — is a 21st-century movement in that technology-savvy youth, including women, stand at the forefront of the demonstrations on the streets.
But it is also a much wider act of civil disobedience than what we see on the news. The CDM involves a huge diversity of people of different ages, including more than 75 percent of Myanmar’s civil service, many of whom are not on the streets but protesting against the coup by refusing to go to work. The security forces’ response to National League for Democracy (NLD) members and unarmed protestors is becoming increasingly violent and could get worse.
The security of civilians, including those who are peacefully opposing the Feb. 1 coup, has deteriorated significantly in the last week, with more than 58 people confirmed killed since the coup began (38 of them, including many youth, died on March 4, some from gunshot wounds). Reports are emerging of NLD members and election campaigners being tortured and even killed in custody: 1,790 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced; 1,472 remain in detention or have outstanding warrants for their arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the civilian leader of the country, chose the title of state counselor because the unreformed constitution did not allow her to become president or prime minister, since her children were British citizens. She was arrested by the military and confined to house arrest during the day of the coup. She and her party had won a landslide election victory in November 2020, which was challenged by the military, claiming election fraud.
On March 7, at least five hospitals in Yangon, the country’s largest city, were invaded and occupied by military force, a clear violation of international human-rights law, under which states are obligated to ensure effective protection for health workers and to provide unhindered access to emergency health services for everyone at all times.
Asean, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, must recognize that Myanmar is fast becoming a failed state and that some form of serious intervention is required. People on the ground are calling for UN intervention and invoking of R2P, the “responsibility to protect” doctrine adopted by member nations at a world summit in 2005.
While R2P is unlikely to be triggered, the international community cannot stand by and watch helplessly as Myanmar falls apart. A lot of expectations are being placed on Asean internationally, including by China and the United States, to take a mediation role in the Myanmar crisis before more people die.
Such a role must carefully engage both the Tatmadaw, the national army, while not legitimizing it, as well as the people of Myanmar, while not losing the engagement of the Tatmadaw. Asean must quickly mobilize its most-effective mediation abilities to prevent Myanmar from descending into a full-scale protracted crisis and even civil war.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Noeleen Heyzer, a member of the UN secretary-general’s high-level advisory board on mediation, is a distinguished fellow of the Singapore Management University and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. She was formerly the executive director of Unifem, the precursor to UN Women; as an under secretary-general, she was also the first woman appointed executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap).
As this article implies, the question remains: how is ASEAN to play a mediating role without legitimizing the Burmese military through engagement? In recent years a number of nations have been selling arms to the Tatmadaw, despite the Genocide of the Rohingya, and still other nations allow or promote business with military owned companies, strengthening the Tatmadaw. Business as usual hardly inspires confidence.
It is clear that short-term sacrifice will be necessary for long-term stability and success. But do ASEAN member countries show the political will to support democracy? Are incentives necessary? And will UN and ASEAN member nations engage with the CRPH, that represents the rightfully elected government of Myanmar? Surely a strong show of support for democracy requires engagement with the rightful representatives of the Burmese people, especially since the CRPH shows signs of effective trust building with beleaguered ethnic minorities.
In short, let’s not betray the democratic aspirations in the name of restoring order. Mediating between the diverse people of Myanmar and the Tatmadaw is fully analogous to mediating between a rape victim and her abuser. Mediation is not always the appropriate response.