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The Financial Express

An assertive ASEAN?


An assertive ASEAN?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), basically an economic bloc, and which usually keeps away from domestic politics of member countries, has finally shown its teeth. At an emergency meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers held on October 15, it was decided that in the next ASEAN summit, a non-political person will be invited to represent Myanmar. In line with that ASEAN stand, its crisis (Myanmar crisis) envoy, Brunei's second minister of foreign affairs Erywan Yusof has cancelled his visit to Myanmar. To restore stability in crisis-torn Myanmar, Mr Yusof was tasked with the job of reducing tension in that country through mediating a dialogue between the ruling military junta and its opponents, especially, members of Myanmar's elected members and their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government the military toppled in a coup in February this year. But Myanmar's military government of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would not allow the ASEAN envoy to meet Suu Kyi or any of her people. Such posture by the Myanmar junta, goes against the spirit of the Jakarta summit. The ASEAN leaders during that summit in April this year met with the Myanmar's military ruler and reached a five-point consensus on tackling the political crisis created in that country following the February coup. The economic bloc's chair, the Sultan of Brunei, issued a statement embodying the 5-point consensus which called for, among other steps, immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, holding a dialogue among the parties concerned towards a peaceful solution to the crisis and facilitation of the mediation by an envoy of the ASEAN's chair. But seeing that the progress in implementing the 5-point April consensus to end the Myanmar crisis was unsatisfactory so far, the Friday's emergency meeting downgraded Myanmar's representation in the next ASEAN summit.

Such a stance on ASEAN's part is something unusual. In fact, in its 54 years' history, the organisation is not known to have taken such strong stand against any of its member nation. And after becoming its member in 1997, Myanmar has proved to be a thorn in the regional forum's side. All along, ASEAN had been under pressure from the West to do its bit to improve the situation in Myanmar. The pressure, however, became more intense after the February coup. But ASEAN remained as unassertive as ever.  Now the ASEAN seems to have changed. But had the regional forum been proactive earlier, a major manmade humanitarian disaster could perhaps be averted in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Ironically though, not a purely military, but a democratically elected government of Aung San suukyi was then in power.

Even so, ASEAN did little to prevail upon the Myanmar government to stop it from committing inhuman crimes against the Rohingya Muslim population in the country's western Rakhine state. The genocidal campaign that began in August 2017 by the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw in Burmese) against the Rohingyas could as a result go unchallenged. The failure of the regional body to take a united stand against a member government's trampling of international law and human rights against a section of its own population in such a glaring manner drew a lot of criticism from international quarters. Emboldened by the regional as well as the international bodies' inaction against the Myanmar junta's misdeeds, it overthrew an elected civil government. And then cracked down on the people protesting against the coup and has killed some 1100 people so far. It is not surprising then that at a point some called the ASEAN a 'toothless' organisation. So, it is a welcome development that the 10-member Southeast Asian economic bloc has finally acted. Mostafa Izzuddin, the global affairs analyst at a Singapore-based consultancy, Solaris strategies, said the exclusion (of Myanmar's military ruler) from the upcoming ASEAN summit has been "a political stopgap measure for ASEAN to assuage international criticism." One would like to believe that in the future ASEAN would take a firmer stance against the crime Myanmar military and its accomplices committed against the Rohingyas in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

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