January 12, 2023
JAKARTA – Jan. 4 marked the 75th anniversary of Myanmar’s independence. Under normal circumstances, the occasion, usually referred to as a “diamond jubilee”, would involve great celebration and joy.
However, the people of Myanmar are instead dealing with a deadly war. Since illegally seizing power on Feb. 1, 2021 to prevent the newly elected parliament from convening, the military junta has escalated its attacks on unarmed civilians and armed resistance forces alike.
In February-November 2022, ACLED (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project), a database that tracks armed conflicts globally, reported a 361 percent increase in air strikes launched by the Myanmar junta against mainly civilian communities, with the junta carrying out 374 air strikes compared to 81 air strikes over the same period in 2021.
Myanmar, not Ukraine, now has the world’s highest incidence of violence against civilians, looting and property destruction. Air strikes and artillery attacks by the junta have targeted homes, schools, hospitals and places of worship with devastating impacts, including an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
This seems to be the junta’s response to losing its grip on the ground: It only had stable control over 72 townships, which amounted to 17 percent of the 330 townships in Myanmar, compared to the resistance forces’ control of 127 townships, or 52 percent.
Despite outnumbering the armed resistance forces in terms of troops and weapons, the junta was forced to engage in 3,127 clashes with them, compared to 1,921 clashes over the same period in 2021. This represents a 94 percent rise in armed conflict in the past year.
The war has inevitably impacted Myanmar’s economy, with potentially worrisome impacts on us all: The Myanmar kyat has lost 60 percent in value since the coup in February 2021, compared to the Ukraine hryvnia, which has depreciated by 30 percent.
It is not surprising then, that ASEAN is concerned and is moving forward on a plan to implement the Five-Point Consensus (FPC), which was adopted 20 months ago at a meeting hosted by Indonesia. The FPC, which junta leader Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing had originally agreed to, was designed to reduce violence, address the humanitarian crisis and bring all stakeholders to the dialogue table.
An effective FPC implementation plan requires an end game aimed at realizing a democratic, inclusive, just, peaceful, harmonious and prosperous Myanmar, where civil and political rights are constitutionally guaranteed.
This would entail inclusive and fair consultation with all key stakeholders. The consultation may involve matters or processes such as fair and transparent humanitarian aid, including the establishment of an Inclusive Humanitarian Donor Forum, a jointly designed and accountable ceasefire process, a democratically drafted and adopted “People’s Constitution” and free and fair elections held in accordance with the new People’s Constitution.
However, Min Aung Hlaing’s plan to hold a sham election this year to legitimize his illegal rule is a challenge to the FPC. The disturbing developments of 2022, which prompted ASEAN to propose its FPC implementation plan, point to efforts to secure this sham election, i.e. an increase in the military’s attacks and air strikes in a desperate attempt to gain territorial control for the polls and intensified crackdowns to stamp out political challengers and the opposition.
The recent jail sentence handed down to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, which effectively locks her up for the rest of her life, is aimed at neutralizing the junta leader’s political nemesis.
The sham election, dubbed by activists as the MAHlection after the general’s initials, will not serve to mitigate Myanmar’s instability. In fact, it will likely worsen the conflict and economic chaos with long-term impacts on our region, which is still reeling from the economic and human security shocks of the pandemic.
The sham election, calculated to benefit the junta and its supporters, may also be used as a reset button to wholly dismiss the FPC.
The stakes are indeed high for Indonesia as the current chair of ASEAN. In November 2022, leaders noted at the ASEAN Summit that it was incumbent on the junta, or the Myanmar Armed Forces, to fulfill its commitments to ASEAN.
Indonesia has the capacity to strengthen ASEAN’s authority and legitimacy by ensuring compliance with the principles underpinning the FPC. Indonesia now has the opportunity to draw on broad international support for the FPC to strategically leverage existing and proposed sanctions, to ensure that its role as ASEAN chair is an effective one during this critical year.
The writer is a member of the Malaysian parliament and a former foreign minister.