March 6, 2023
JAKARTA – Parliamentarians across Southeast Asia are urging ASEAN to take “swift and concrete action” against the Myanmar military junta and provide “real” assistance to prodemocracy forces up against military rule, amid intensifying resistance campaigns across the country.
Myanmar has been beset by social, political and economic chaos ever since its military overthrew the democratically elected government in 2021, and a regional response led by ASEAN has so far failed to push the needle on a peace plan agreed upon by the junta leadership.
The United Nations and human rights groups have accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out atrocities as part of a brutal crackdown on its opponents, which the junta labels “terrorists”. The coup regime also spurns any “external interference” in what it insists are internal affairs.
In recent days, fighting between the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) and the junta regime has intensified across the country, with clashes reported in the Sagaing, Mandalay and Magwe regions as well as Kayah state, causing casualties on both sides of the conflict.
In response, dozens of parliamentarians and civil society organizations from Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Timor-Leste and Myanmar convened for roundtable talks in Jakarta on Friday to address the crisis and call for decisive action.
“The crisis in Myanmar is causing a humanitarian catastrophe of gigantic proportions,” said Mercy Barends, chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights’ (APHR) regional advocacy group.
“The sole [entity] responsible for this disaster is the junta led by Min Aung Hlaing, and it is high time that ASEAN stop treating it with kid gloves. Strong pressure to isolate the Myanmar military is more imperative and urgent than ever,” said the House of Representatives lawmaker.
According the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Myanmar war monitor, more than 16,000 political prisoners are currently jailed in abysmal conditions, and at least 3,075 people have been killed by the military since the coup, although the AAPP believes the number is likely many times higher.
These conditions also extend to parliamentarians in the country. According to APHR monitoring, 84 members of national and subnational parliaments are in detention, facing not only the risk of torture in prison but also the possibility of execution, following the execution of four prodemocracy activists, including former lawmaker Phyo Zeya Thaw.
“What is happening in Myanmar is an affront to humanity and we, as fellow humans, should take it seriously and not stand idly as the military continues to violate the human rights of the Myanmar people,” said Antonio de Sa Benevides, a member of parliament of Timor-Leste.
Among the first steps discussed in Jakarta was the need to recognize Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) as the legitimately elected representatives of the people of Myanmar and involve them in future talks.
“We, parliamentarians across Southeast Asia, must work together in putting the country back into a path towards democracy,” said the Timorese member of the APHR.
The lawmakers’ message echoed the sentiment from some ASEAN leaders, including Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who said earlier that ASEAN had to prove its relevance in the resolution of the conflict.
“We can’t see this as a purely internal issue, so I have appealed to friends in ASEAN to say, ‘look, we have to be tougher,’” Anwar said during a visit to the Philippines on Friday.
Current ASEAN chair Indonesia had promised to take a tougher stance against the junta regime and involve all stakeholders in dialogue, but Jakarta has since kept its strategy tightly under wraps.
Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi told a press briefing in India on Friday that the topic of the coup crisis had repeatedly come up in bilateral meetings with her partners.
Jakarta’s approach has been to push for the full implementation of the existing peace plan, set out in ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC) issued shortly after the coup.
However, many, including the APHR, have bemoaned the inadequacy and lack of progress of the regional response.
The International Parliamentary Inquiry (IPI) into the global response to the crisis in Myanmar, which was organized by the APHR in 2022, found that the global community had largely failed to provide the help that the people of Myanmar sorely needed.
It said ASEAN and the international community at large had hidden behind the 5PC document, which the Myanmar junta had continuously and blatantly flouted.
“As chair of ASEAN this year, the biggest and most democratic country in the region, Indonesia, has a duty to step up and tell the generals in Naypyidaw that enough is enough,” said APHR cochair Charles Santiago, a former member of the Malaysian parliament.
“After the failed approach of Cambodia last year, appeasing the generals and ignoring the prodemocracy movement, Jakarta should put significant pressure on the Myanmar military and support the prodemocracy forces led by the NUG, if it is serious about solving the crisis.”