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Regional Rifts in Southeast Asia Stall Action on Myanmar as Atrocities Soar

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On March 31, 2022, Prak Sokhonn, Cambodia’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, met with Noeleen Heyzer, the United Nations special envoy for Myanmar, in Phnom Penh. Heyzer spoke to the UN General Assembly in June, noting that her office was created in 2018 to deal with the Rohingya displacement crisis. “The challenges facing the people of Myanmar have both deepened and expanded dramatically since,” she told member states.

Among governments and international organizations worldwide there is a refrain that the catastrophic collapse of Myanmar is a regional problem to be solved primarily by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The 10-member group, known as Asean, remains deeply split, however, and the fissure seems to be hardening.

On one side of the arguments are governments saying Asean nations should not interfere in the internal affairs of fellow members, a traditional view. On the other are members asserting that the situation in Myanmar is too serious to be met by Asean’s all-too-usual inaction. The break has become public and sometimes acrimonious.

On June 13, Noeleen Heyzer, six months into her appointment as special adviser on Myanmar to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, spoke remotely to the General Assembly, noting that her office was established in 2018 mainly to address the Rohingya crisis. She added, “The challenges facing the people of Myanmar have both deepened and expanded dramatically since.”

The Feb. 1, 2021 military coup in the country has led to “profound and widespread conflict,” she said. One quarter of the population, nearly 14 million people, “urgently require humanitarian assistance,” and 700,000 people have been displaced in a nation long dominated by the ethnic Bamar Buddhist majority.

Rampaging troops under the coup leader, Senior Gen. Aung Min Hlaing, are flattening villages, leaving charred bodies in the fields after ground and air assaults. Ethnic minority areas are often targeted, forcing residents to arm themselves with any weapon they can find or make. Hundreds of local opposition militias have formed, usually without much if any formal connection to the National Unity Government. That is the opposition political movement that has pledged to return the country to democracy.

In her address to the General Assembly, Heyzer stressed that humanitarian needs are her first priority, along with international efforts to address those needs. She is also focusing on spurring peace talks through Asean and changing Myanmar’s policies toward the Rohingya — two efforts that would benefit from more global involvement.

“My consultations with EAOs [ethnic armed organizations] have also highlighted the need for the international community to be better aligned with ground realities,” she said. Without elaborating, she added, “I have been informed that barriers to humanitarian support are the result of deliberate regime policies aimed at constraining the ability of communities to assist affected civilians in areas of active conflict.”

Speaking on June 11 at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue, an Asian security summit held in Singapore, Heyzer stressed that the worsening security and humanitarian situations needed to be addressed at all levels, from local to global.

In her remarks in Singapore, she also called for more attention to the urgent need to support and protect Myanmar’s women and children. In this effort, she is working with Retno Marsudi, the foreign minister of Indonesia, to advance the women, peace and security agenda in Myanmar. Marsudi, a former diplomat, is the first woman to hold the position in Indonesia.

On June 14, Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, also took up the situation in Myanmar. In remarks before the Human Rights Council, Bachelet, who has just announced that she will not seek a second term, blamed the military for at least 1,900 targeted killings since the coup 18 months ago. “What we are witnessing today is the systematic and widespread use of tactics against civilians,” she said, adding that “there are reasonable grounds to believe [this is a] commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

Within Asean, the widening divide over how to handle Myanmar threatens to affect — and further diminish — the group’s influence.

Here’s an example: Early this year, Hun Sen, a wily former Khmer Rouge official who has been the authoritarian prime minister of Cambodia since 1985, defied a post-coup Asean prohibition against official travel to Myanmar to meet Gen. Min Hlaing, in a blaze of publicity. Hun Sen happens to chair Asean this year, and his in-your-face action provoked considerable outrage from other Asean governments.

Malaysia’s foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, was the most vocal critic, followed by officials in Indonesia and Singapore. Thailand and Vietnam, both regionally powerful countries, stayed mostly quiet.

Singapore’s stance was unexpected, said Alan Doss, a former UN under secretary-general who spent three decades on tough UN assignments in Southeast Asia, forming personal relationships with numerous regional leaders. He then served as president  of the Kofi Annan Foundation, until his retirement in 2020, and he now writes commentaries.

“Singapore has tended to be quite conservative in commenting on other countries’ civil affairs,” Doss said, speaking from his home in the Geneva area in Switzerland. “So I was surprised that they had been willing to really push forward on this and seek a more activist confrontation with what happened in Myanmar.”

Doss, an occasional contributor to PassBlue, serves on the advisory board of the Oxford Global Society and recently published a formidable essay on its website, titled “Burma’s Struggle for the Future,”  tracing the tortured history of independent Burma; that was its name before the military changed it to Myanmar in 1989. (The United States government still refers to the country as Burma, in deference to Aung San Suu Kyi and others who challenged the army generals. She turned 77 on June 19.)

In his essay, Doss explains why Aung San Suu Kyi, a democratic icon with whom he worked for years as a UN official, has sometimes seemed ambivalent about the military. The obvious reason usually given is that her father, Aung San, created the Burmese army and led the movement for independence from Britain. He was assassinated in 1947.

But why did Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected head of a civilian government, go to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in December 2019 to defend the country from charges of genocide against the mostly Muslim Rohingya, brought by Gambia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation?

“I’m sure that she thought it was a question of principle,” Doss told PassBlue. “This is her father’s army. But to have gone that far — to fly to The Hague — mystified people, including some people who had known her well for a long time. When they tried to persuade her otherwise, they were rebuffed. Old friends stretching back decades.

“It was her basic character, but sometimes this can trip you up.

“It was not an unpopular move, and if you are being cynical about those things you could say, ‘Well, maybe this showed up in the election results,'” Doss said, referring to the 2020 election, which Aung San Suu Kyi won decisively, frightening the military. “Maybe in a way it undercut the military’s own effort to oppose that court case to boost its own popularity because Gen. Min Hlaing had political ambitions.”

What did the Rohingya make of this?

“The Rohingya realized they could be pushed aside,” Doss said.

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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