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Pan-Southeast Asian Agreement Aims to Stop Spillover of Myanmar Violence

In this photo released by Indonesian Presidential Palace, ASEAN leaders convene during their meeting at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, April 24, 2021. (Agus Suparto, Indonesian Presidential Palace via AP)
In this photo released by Indonesian Presidential Palace, ASEAN leaders convene during their meeting at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, April 24, 2021. (Agus Suparto, Indonesian Presidential Palace via AP)

Saturday's strongly worded call from a bloc of 10 Southeast Asian nations for an end to post-coup violence in Myanmar moves the region a step away from unrest infecting other countries and a step toward peacemaking, analysts say.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a five-point consensus calling for “immediate cessation” of violence in Myanmar, “utmost restraint” by all actors there and the start of peace talks. An ASEAN envoy will help mediate dialogue in Myanmar, the consensus said, and the group will offer humanitarian aid. Myanmar is a group member.

"We, as an ASEAN family, had a close discussion on the recent developments in Myanmar and expressed our deep concern on the situation in the country, including reports of fatalities and escalation of violence,” the bloc’s chairman said in a statement after a daylong leadership meeting in Jakarta.

The other nine countries hope to stop Myanmar refugees from spilling across their borders and to make sure the strife doesn’t undermine ASEAN’s long-term role as a stabilizer in a politically and economically varied region of 655 million people, experts said.

“What happens in Myanmar now has significant impacts for the region as a whole, so that’s the interest of the other nine member states,” said Alistair Cook, a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Sheltering refugees

Association members Indonesia and Bangladesh have absorbed Muslim refugees from Myanmar following previous strife with the government, but they lack capacity to shelter large new waves of people. Both recipient nations are largely Muslim.

Fellow bloc member Thailand, which has a land border with Myanmar, already has discovered people fleeing from Myanmar since its recent coup.

The February coup and arrest of de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi touched off protests that sparked massacres by the military in parts of the impoverished, 55 million-person country. Hundreds have been reported dead. Anti-coup demonstrators returned Friday to Yangon.

Myanmar had been under civilian rule since 2011, after decades of military control, until the coup. The army cried fraud when Suu Kyi’s political camp won elections in November, an apparent impetus for the coup.

The loss of a democracy within the Southeast Asian bloc concerns other countries, such as Indonesia, said Dinna Prapto Raharja, an associate international relations professor and a former Indonesian representative to the ASEAN Commission on Human Rights.

"This is because there is continued violence that already looks like a zero-sum game trend, where the winning of one group may lead to devastating loss for the other,” she said of Myanmar.

Staying 'relevant'

Stopping violence keeps ASEAN “relevant,” she added. The association members are known for working together on trade and open borders. In the past, it has pushed for easing the South China Sea sovereignty dispute and backed Myanmar’s transition to democracy.

The ASEAN leadership meeting was the world’s first coordinated multicountry effort to stop violence in Myanmar, which also is known as Burma.

The chairman's statement was unusually strong for a group that normally shuns the national politics of individual members, which include two developing communist states and a wealthy monarchy in addition to emerging democracies.

Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing, who led the military coup, reached Jakarta on Saturday for the event. It’s unclear how Myanmar will react long term to the statement, Cook said.

The junta won’t be happy, but ASEAN’s stance could help invigorate civilian efforts in the country, said Evan Laksamana, a senior researcher for the Center for Strategic and International Studies research group in Jakarta.

Some in Myanmar, who have clashed with the government, are looking to ASEAN for solutions.

“This summit is ASEAN’s last chance to prove that it can end a crisis in its own neighborhood,” said Tun Khin, president of the advocacy group Burmese Rohingya Organization UK. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in western Myanmar, has long battled the government for its right to remain in the country, with a surge in violence in 2017.

Min Aung Hlaing is unlikely to listen to any ASEAN envoy, Tun Khin said.

“They appointed a special envoy they called in to stop violence, but so far we have not seen that he listened to anyone [in the] last three months or more,” he said.