ASEAN
Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), from left, pose for a photo during a photo session in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Image Credit: AP

A little over a year has passed since Myanmar military under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing took back control of the country and sent the National League for Democracy (NLD) government led by Aung San Suu Kyi packing. Her compromises proved insufficient to appease the military in a power-sharing arrangement, who struck the day the newly elected government was to be installed on Feb. 1, 2021.

The NLD had won 80 per cent of openly elected seats. She remains under detention. Sentenced in couple of cases, she is on trial for a few more. In addition, the military has detained hundreds of key political and cultural leaders leaving the protest in the hands of newer band of resistance leaders. Myanmar’s economy is severely damaged.

Myanmar’s National Unity government that was set up in exile, remains underground for the fear of reprisals, still seeking and awaiting recognition. In the meantime, the Credentials Committee of the UN decided to defer the decision on the military government’s claim of legitimacy. Consequently, Ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, who was sent by the NLD government remains in post as the Myanmar representative to New York.

Emergency rule

General Hlaing has endowed himself as chair of the State Administration Council and Prime Minister of the caretaker government he formed. In this capacity he has administrative, legislative and judicial powers. He has already laid out that the emergency rule would stay till at least August 2023.

The military says that the 2020 elections, considered fair by the international observers, were not legit. Alleging irregularities, ballot rigging and abuse of powers by the NLD, the military appointed commission has already nullified the election results.

The military that already holds a quarter of seats in both the houses of the parliament reportedly seeks to amend the constitution allowing itself half the seats in each of the houses. They also want to equalise the number of seats in each house so that the military can have a veto over any legislation when the two houses meet together.

Currently the lower house has 440 and the upper house has 224 seats. They are also suggesting changing the proportional representation system from the current first past the post. This will tilt the power towards smaller parties.

New armed groups have emerged, in the meantime, to resist the military rule. But these groups are inadequately armed drawing much of their strength from the ethnic armies that have dogged the Myanmar military for a long time. Resistance to the military has grown from protest rallies only to sometimes insurgent attacks. It is difficult for the organised force to confront hit and run tactics of these forces.

ASEAN in a bind

The ASEAN, the grouping of ten Southeast Asian states to which Myanmar also belongs, finds itself in a bind. The Association agreed on a 5-Point Plan, aimed at reconciliation in Myanmar, with General Hlaing at a special summit in Jakarta on April 24 last year.

But when the Association felt that Myanmar was not living up to his promises, the country was not invited for the Brunei summit during October 2021. This was the first time a member state has been denied participation at the head of state or government level.

This year’s summit is due to be held in Phnom Penh. Interestingly Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on assuming the ASEAN Chair January this year, paid a two-day visit to Myanmar. This was the first by a head of government since the military takeover.

The prime minister left Myanmar without much success. The group is sharply divided over whether to accept the General among them. The division has already led to cancellation of foreign ministers meeting that was due in January.

ASEAN cannot indefinitely keep one of its members out particularly when it operates on the basis of no interference in the internal affairs of member states.

Within the group hard choices face governments in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. Though common border opens up possibilities for the displaced in Thailand, the authorities there have disallowed opening large-scale facilities for the refugee centers. And Malaysia has borne the brunt of Rohingya migrants over decades.

The opposition to the military remains disjointed. Their success is to keep the struggle going and build international pressure.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2008 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as ambassador to several countries.