Indonesia is gearing up for the forthcoming ASEAN Summit. Its popular two-term, and hence outgoing, President Joko Widodo, and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, have reportedly visited the site of the scheduled May 9-11 Summit in Labuan Bajo. One of the first things Indonesian leadership has embarked on is public diplomacy or strategic communications about what its leadership can and cannot do for the peoples of Myanmar through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Amidst grumbles from international policy and activist circles with Myanmar concerns worldwide, the Indonesian leadership has been tight-lipped about what it’s doing to address one of the hottest – and so far intractable perennial issues. As outrageous as it is, not even a textbook, full-blown genocide of Rohingyas had, in the past, inconvenienced the regional bloc, largely indifferent to ideals of human rights, in spite of its Human Rights Charter. Lest we forget that ASEAN legitimized and promoted Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge at the United Nations even after the fact that one-third of the Cambodian population had perished in less than four years (1975-79).
Two years before the coup, Malaysia’s then Foreign Minister Saifuddin bin Abdullah said pointedly to a group of us visiting legal and genocide scholars with Rohingya concerns, in Putrajaya that he wanted today’s ASEAN to do better than the original ASEAN of the 1970’s. For the original ASEAN allowed the genocide in its own backyard and proceeded to protect the perpetrators as “representative” of Cambodia. Saifuddin’s sentiment notwithstanding, objectively speaking, ASEAN has continued to fail Rohingya genocide victims, again, with ASEAN navies pushing away from their shores thousands of Rohingya boat people over the years, who are fleeing hell on the earth and risking life on the high seas in search of refuge in places like Aceh, Indonesia and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Be that as it may, the 2021 Myanmar military coup and resulting bloodbath, still ongoing, has unnerved the rest of the ASEAN member states, including the money-obsessed Singapore (Myanmar’s largest investor). The bloodbath of civilians by the military, and the ensuing armed revolution, ASEAN under the two previous chairs – Brunei and Cambodia – did not accomplish much in terms of either stopping the killings or starting a mediation process. Both Brunei and Cambodia continued to treat the coup regime of Min Aung Hlaing, as if the killers in green uniform were the sole representatives and spokespersons of Myanmar as a member state.
So, Indonesia under Jokowi’s leadership this year has ignited a widespread, if limited optimism, among Myanmar people. We have thought that Jakarta will at least use its renewed leadership position globally. This optimism is in significant part based on its successful role as the G-20 host that facilitated the first-ever substantive meeting in Bali of U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping, with their mutually hostile policies. A brief detour of Indonesia-Myanmar ties may be in order.
Throughout the last 70 years since Myanmar and Indonesia shook off the yoke of colonial subjugation by their respective European abusers – the Dutch and the British, both civilian and military leaderships of these post-colonial countries had retained close ties. As a matter of fact, Myanmar people under Prime Minister U Nu contributed to the national liberation struggle of Indonesians by providing the latter with “rice and guns” (India under Nehru also shipped weapons to Rangoon where our democratic government was under siege by the then secessionist Karen National Defence Organization That is just what good neighbors do: offer rice and guns as an act of solidarity).
President Sukarno and Prime Minister Nu were co-founders of the Non-aligned Movement, along with India’s Nehru. Their non-aligned movement in the thick of the Cold War, was kicked off in the mountainous city of Bandung, Java. The likes of world revolutionaries – Che Guevara and Fidel Castro – were part of this movement. (The duo made a visit to Rangoon, staying at the colonial-era Strand Hotel, as part of their Asia-Africa tour, and told Rangoon’s English language press that they were horrified to know that the Burmese elite learned about their Cuban Revolution from TIME magazine, which they apparently – and rightly – considered a U.S. imperialist propaganda publication on grocery check-out stands!)
When the initial flames of democracy were extinguished by the U.S.-backed bloody military coups, waged ostensibly against “the Communist threats” in Rangoon in 1962 and Jakarta in 1965, the two usurpers – Generals Ne Win and Suharto – forged their dictatorial ties, while the Myanmar military began modeling itself after Indonesia’s “dual function” paradigm – as the sole national defender and national (political) guardian. Both Ne Win and Suharto were forced out of power and died in disgrace, although Suharto continues to be given respect among some quarters in Indonesia, Ne Win remains one of the most universally hated military figures in Myanmar.
The top dishonor of the most reviled person goes to Min Aung Hlaing. Myanmar people will not accept that the man whom they consider not simply the deliverer of death and violence but the thief who has stolen their dreams of a better future. To remove this criminal and corrupt usurper from power is where some of us Myanmar activists look to Indonesia as a potential external actor.
So far, Indonesia has not disappointed. For starters, Jakarta publicly broke with the ASEAN customary behavior of only interacting with the ruling military and/or “political representatives” of the State in Myanmar since its admission into the bloc in 1997. During his state visit to Singapore, President Jokowi broke the news that his foreign policy team has been meeting with “all stakeholders” (including anti-coup ethnic revolutionary organizations, other ethnic armed organizations, the National Unity Government and the coup regime of Min Aung Hlaing).
To be sure, Jakarta is still operating with the framework of the Five Point Consensus (5-PC for short), including the cessation of violence and the starting of “all inclusive dialogue” among “stakeholders” of Myanmar – reached the Special Summit Jokowi hosted in Jakarta in April 2020, two months after the bloody coup in Myanmar. Significantly, Min Aung Hlaing was a key participant in that summit, not as Head of State of Myanmar, nonetheless as Commander-in-chief of the largest military force in the country.
Two full years on, objectively speaking again, Min Aung Hlaing and his deputies have binned the 5-PC, whatever the rest of the ASEAN think of the virtues and potentials of it. If in doubt, one only has to take a cursory glance at the 24-months of incessant, excessive and unlawful use of violence against civilians by the Myanmar military under his command. After a long lull in global reportage about Myanmar’s repression and resistance, long overshadowed by the U.S. proxy war in Ukraine, the military’s precision airstrikes on April 11 targeting a large gathering of civilians, with 170 killed, including 40 children, has put Myanmar back in the media spotlight.
To its credit, Indonesia officially issued a rather stinging response to the unacceptable use of airstrikes against civilians, in the form of Chair’s Statement of “Strong Condemnation”, which did not need ASEAN Consensus, but nonetheless reflects the widespread views throughout the ASEAN capitals. On his part, Min Aung Hlaing gave Jakarta a political equivalent of a fat finger by sending planes and gunship helicopters to strike civilian targets in Chin State, Karen State and Karenni State as recently as April 24. These bombing runs did not include a second airstrike at the same crime scene like in Pa Zi Gyi village on April 11. CNN framed the violence in its “killer always returns to the crime scene” television report.
At the forthcoming summit in Indonesia, the ASEAN heads of state and their teams are expected to review the implementation of their Myanmar template – the 5-PC. President Jokowi’s Myanmar policy team headed by his Foreign Minister Marsudi, a career diplomat, has been holding consultation meetings with different “stakeholders.” The Indonesians have amassed a wealth of raw intelligence, or “situation updates” about the violence, the civil war, the actors, the fighters, etc.They have for days listened to the concerns, the analyses, and the expectations of these Myanmar parties in conflict. It is worth sharing some of the common views and concerns which the Indonesians have been presented with. For it paints a general picture of what may be termed Myanmar’s domestic consensus only on the basis of which a lasting solution for it can be found.
First, despite the typical framing of Myanmar resistance movements as simply “disunited,” if not “in disarray,” there has emerged a consensus that disparate groups and movements do share a unity of mission or purpose: every group and movement wants a federated democracy where basic human rights are guaranteed and protected, where the equality of ethnic groups is enshrined in the Constitution, and where the tyranny of ethnic majoritarian democracy such as the National League for Democracy (NLD) under Aung San Suu Kyi is prohibited by the electoral system.
Second, no civilian and political stakeholder will ever accept the 2008 Constitution which has in effect enshrined the eternal political role of Myanmar’s military as if it were the sole guardian of the nation and the protector of the people. From this widely popular perspective, the 2008 Constitution with no sunset clause for the military to phase itself out of politics, cannot be revived under any circumstances. It goes without saying that the electoral legitimacy claimed through the elections held within this anti-democratic constitutional framework is no longer acceptable. This is a significant moral and intellectual challenge to the NLD old guards which are leading the Committee Representing People’s Parliament (CRPH) and the National Unity Government (NUG). In addition to Aung San Suu Kyi, who at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) defended the military while discrediting Rohingya genocide rape victims. Many of them, these second and third line NLD leaders served as genocide cheerleaders, denialists, and supporters. This is something the Muslim-majority Indonesians have found extremely objectionable morally and spiritually. Certainly, the NUG will remain morally and intellectually damaged unless these old elements of criminality and racism are replaced by the younger more progressive representatives.
Third, all the civilian and political actors that participated in Jakarta’s extensive and intensive consultation process – over four months – agree that elections held without a political settlement or a blueprint for Myanmar as a federal democracy is not a solution or a step forward. Quite the contrary, the elections in the middle of intensifying and expanding civil war will only add more fuel to the violence conflict. This much, the leaked Ministry of Home Affairs intelligence chiefs’ meeting minutes of December 2022 has been observed already.
Fourth, all the pro-democracy participants share the view that the political settlement must involve the establishment of a transitional body which includes civil society actors such as women’s organizations, political parties and ethnic armed organizations. This body will be tasked with both transitional governance and drafting a new People’s Constitution on the basis of which a new election may be held.
Fifth, based on this Constitution of, for and by the People, the new electoral system will need to be designed to give multiple ethnic nations or electorates proportional representations – as opposed to the “Winner-Takes-All” electoral design which propelled the Bamar and Buddhist-centric NLD to power, with not a single Muslim MP in the parliament from 2015-20. This will in turn prevent the repeat of the emergence of the ethnic majoritarian democracy, or mono-ethnic control of the state and its organ, Myanmar’s cardinal problem since its independence from Britain in 1948.
Sixth, no “stakeholder” from amongst Myanmar participants objects to the idea of “all inclusive dialogue” which ASEAN proposed as a step towards a peaceful resolution of Myanmar’s violent crisis. However, the killings, including air strikes, legal murders, artillery fire, scorch-earth security operations, torture and jailing of civilians and activists, by the coup regime must stop, unconditionally, before any meaningful dialogue is morally acceptable and intellectually justifiable.
Finally, all Myanmar people, especially the ethnic nationalities communities, demand the establishment of a process for transitional justice – along different models be they South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission or proper tribunal for those who the highest command responsibility for the numerous and grave crimes in international and national laws which Myanmar’s military has perpetrated since it usurped the state’s power in a coup in 1962. For more than half a century, the non-Bamar ethnic communities, including Rohingyas, have been subjected to variously genocidal and semi-genocidal abuses by Myanmar’s military. For no oppressed society can move forward from the dark past unless perpetrators and victims come together and process the vast store of their collective trauma in their respective search for peace and reconciliation.
Maung Zarni is the co-author of Essays on Myanmar’s Genocide of Rohingyas (2012-18). He is a UK-based Burmese exile with over 30-years of first-hand involvement and scholarship in Burma affairs.
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