May 26, 2022
JAKARTA – As Aung San Suu Kyi stands little chance of returning to power and will likely be isolated from the outside world by Myanmar’s junta for years to come, the opposition groups will find great difficulties in finding an effective unifying political leader. It will not be an easy job at all, not only because of the unrivaled popularity of Suu Kyi among the grass roots, but also because her most trusted aides and allies have been jailed together with her.
Suu Kyi, 76, will probably spend the rest of her life in prison. She has been jailed by the military since Gen. Aung Min Hlaing toppled her in a coup on Feb. 1 last year. A military-supervised court sentenced her to five years in jail for corruption in April. She is still facing at least 18 other charges, including election fraud.
The National Unity Government (NUG) claims itself to be the official representative of Suu Kyi’s government in exile, but the outside world especially ASEAN is still extra cautious knowing the history of frictions among different ethnicities and political affiliations in Myanmar.
There is also the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which comprises elected MPs from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and other anti-military organizations. The group says its struggle goes far beyond removing the junta from power, but it has also prepared a roadmap for the establishment of a federal democratic system for Myanmar.
Both the NUG and NUCC claim to represent Suu Kyi in order to win international confidence. But with all respect to her leadership at home, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi lost her credibility for her denial of the prolonged suffering of millions of Rohingya Muslims, whom Myanmar does not recognize as citizens. The Myanmar military has been accused of committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas, with the assistance of paramilitary groups. Suu Kyi has pretended to know nothing about the crimes against humanity, which remain rampant until today.
Until the military coup last year, Suu Kyi had refused to pay a customary visit to Indonesia and Malaysia because she believed the two predominantly Muslim nations were hiding an agenda behind their defense of the minority Muslims in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi voluntarily acted as the true defender of the military against charges of mass killings, rapes and the expulsion of the Rohingyas from Myanmar, at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague in December 2019.
Many condemned Suu Kyi for her defense of the military. Ironically the military was not impressed and even toppled her government.
So far, the NUG and other civil society organizations are busy criticizing ASEAN, who they say should have done more to ensure the return of democracy to Myanmar. They have never stopped demanding ASEAN step up pressure on the junta.
The NUG recently deplored the result of ASEAN’s meeting on humanitarian assistance to Myanmar because, among other reasons, they would not be involved in the distribution of the aid.
The group seems to forget that it has yet to gain international recognition as the official representative of Myanmar. It must accept the fact that close neighbors like Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos prefer to acknowledge Gen. Hlaing as the official leader of Myanmar.
They group could not expect ASEAN to act as it wishes. In fact, ASEAN has done a lot to defend the people of Myanmar. The bloc has set a good precedent in punishing Myanmar’s junta, ending decades of the non-interference principle.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia early in May, the NUG’s foreign minister Zin Mar Aung said it was time for ASEAN to move forward after the junta leader failed to fulfill the “five-point consensus”, which includes peace negotiations and an end to violence against civilians.
“I would like to encourage the ASEAN member states and leadership to follow through and to engage with different stakeholders in Burma, not just only with us,” Mar Aung said.
With the full support of Indonesia and Singapore, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah held an informal meeting with Mar Aung on the sidelines of the United States-ASEAN special summit in Washington, DC, earlier this month.
Mar Aung was also received by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on May 12. According to the US State Department, Sherman met with NUG representatives including Mar Aung at her office. “The Deputy Secretary underscored robust US support for the people of Burma in the face of the regime’s brutal crackdown and pledged to continue providing support to all those working peacefully toward the restoration of Burma’s path to inclusive democracy,” the State Department said in a statement.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo along with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Malaysian Prime Minister Sabri Yakoob, and the Philippines, led the ASEAN’s diplomatic efforts to isolate Myanmar’s junta by barring Hlaing and his representatives from any ASEAN meetings.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has openly opposed the punishment policy, while Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, respectively former and current ASEAN chairs, have tried to be more empathetic to Myanmar, but the military has also ignored them.
The junta was outraged when it was not invited to the special US-ASEAN summit and boasted that China would remain loyal to Myanmar’s military government. The international community has refused to recognize the brutal junta.
Instead of criticizing ASEAN, Myanmar’s opposition groups should forge a more constructive and amicable relationship with the bloc. They cannot just force their will against ASEAN, which does not necessarily have to please them either.
ASEAN is undoubtedly committed to helping the people of Myanmar, including the government in exile, to end the crisis. But the NUG and other opposition groups have to make clear their stance on the alleged genocide against the minority groups, including the Rohingya, as the basis of the international community’s confidence.