KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: In an attempt to diffuse the deepening crisis in Myanmar, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim suggested last Wednesday that Southeast Asian nations should be permitted some leeway to engage informally with the strife-ridden country.
The suggestion came during discussions with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., both agreeing on the importance of strengthening the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) role in quelling the violence that has ensued since the military coup in Myanmar on 1 February 2021.
Anwar expressed the need for neighbouring countries to have “some flexibility, room and space” to interact with Myanmar, provided it does not compromise “the issues of human rights and the treatment of minorities,” particularly ethnic Rohingya Muslims and other groups.
The lack of cooperation from Myanmar has frustrated some ASEAN nations, including Indonesia, the current chair. The country has persistently resisted a peace plan, established in 2021, which advocates for an immediate cessation of violence and dialogue through an ASEAN special envoy. In response, the 10-member ASEAN bloc has barred Myanmar’s generals from attending its meetings.
Thailand, on the other hand, has already chosen a bilateral approach, with Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai confirming a meeting with the detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this month. This exclusive interaction, according to Southeast Asian diplomats, is part of Thailand’s intensified efforts to alleviate the crisis and prevent potential mass refugee influx into Thai territory.
However, these manoeuvres are not without controversy.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) Chairperson Mercy Barends expressed concerns over individual dialogues with Myanmar.
“We are concerned with the Malaysian Prime Minister’s comments that Southeast Asian countries should be able to engage ‘on an individual basis’ with Myanmar. While we appreciate the Prime Minister’s cautions that this must not come at the expense of ‘sacrificing the issues of human rights and the treatment of minorities,’ the risk of normalizing dialogue with the junta like the track 1.5 meetings initiated by Thailand will only serve to further undermine ASEAN unity and centrality in the Myanmar crisis,” Barends stated.
She further urged ASEAN countries, especially those committed to democracy, to resist the manipulations of the Myanmar junta and to persistently advocate for stronger action on Myanmar under the leadership of Indonesia.
Simultaneously, the United States expressed deep concern over Myanmar’s recent extension of the country’s state of emergency for another six months, further delaying pledged elections.
The US State Department’s spokesman, Matthew Miller, described the move as one that takes the country “deeper into violence and instability.”
Since the military coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government over two years ago, Myanmar has seen rampant violence, a brutal crackdown on dissent, and a devastated economy.
Amidst these conditions, there are reports that the Myanmar military government is considering moving the detained leader Suu Kyi, 78, from prison to house arrest in Naypyitaw, the capital.
The Myanmar civilian leader faces a cumulative sentence of 33 years in detention after being convicted on various charges, including incitement, election fraud, and corruption, which she denies.
As the crisis persists, over 3,750 civilians, including pro-democracy activists, have been killed, and nearly 24,000 have been arrested since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.