By Nemhoilhing (Hoi) Kipgen and Samuel Pablo Pareira
Note: This piece represents the opinions of the authors, and may not represent that of The Graduate Press Editorial Board, of which one of the authors is a member.
This piece contains descriptions of graphic violence.
On February 1st, as the people of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) awaited the swearing in of their newly elected parliament, they were met with a coup d’etat instead. During the predawn hours before the ceremony, the military (Tatmadaw) seized power and detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, president Win Myint, and an unknown number of activists, lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and other critics of the military.
Citing electoral malfeasance, the military junta declared a state of emergency, severed internet connections and reimposed draconian laws to restrict privacy and freedom of expression. Since then, more than 70 people have died, and thousands have been wounded and arrested for peacefully protesting in Myanmar, a painful resemblance to the 1988 uprising.
Until recently, Myanmar was deemed a pariah state, cut off from the rest of the world due to decades under military dictatorship. In 2011, when the military junta initiated reforms, many were hopeful, and the international community quickly labeled it as “democratic transition.”
Nevertheless, the country’s “democratic transition” was hampered by its failure to amend the 2008 Myanmar Constitution. Drafted by the junta, the 2008 Constitution explicitly safeguards the military’s power and interests. It reserves 25 percent seats for the military in the parliament, and establishes the need for more than 75 percent of parliament to implement any changes, meaning no change can occur without the military’s approval.
Among many others, the constitution also banned Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate and the de-facto leader of the NLD party, from serving as a president on the basis of her marriage to a foreign citizen. Thus, in 2015 when the NLD party won the election in a landslide victory, they proposed constitutional amendments that would reduce the military seats in the parliament. However, these propositions were vetoed by the military, the very veto power the NLD party intended to limit. Furthermore, the contention between Suu Kyi’s NLD party and the military became unclear in the aftermath of the Rohingya crisis, during which Aung San Suu Kyi defended the military, her long-time opressors, against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
While military rule is all too familiar to the people of Myanmar, the violence unleashed by the military towards civilians at large is chilling. More than a third of those killed are teenagers who were shot in the head by a single bullet, indicating the use of snipers by the security forces. Video clips have emerged of security forces shooting civilians even after they were apprehended. A teenage boy in Kalay was shot for simply holding up three fingers, a symbol of the civil disobedience movement (CDM) in Myanmar.
An image of a Catholic nun kneeling before the army, begging to the police officers to “spare the children” and to shoot her instead has also surfaced. Most recent is the death of a 19-year-old girl who was shot in the head as she rallied the peaceful protestors. According to a recent report by the Watchdog group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), two individuals have died in custody after being severely tortured.
The list of atrocities continues but nevertheless, the people of Myanmar persist. “You messed with the wrong generation” is a slogan echoed by many youth protesters, also known as “Myanmar’s Generation Z,” people born between the late 90s and 2012. These youth activists are daring, outspoken and social media savvy. Using #WhatsHappeninginMyanmar on social media, the youth protesters have continued to update the rest of the world about the realities on ground, indicating that the fight for democracy in Myanmar extends beyond the Military rule versus the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Altogether, it is the people of Myanmar united against a common enemy.
Furthermore, for many ethnic minority groups, this movement is a continuation of their struggle against the discrimination, brutality and oppression they have experienced for decades under the military junta rule. It has also ignited unity, empathy and understanding towards the Rohingyas from Bangladesh refugee camps who stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar.
Women are also on the frontlines of this movement. In defiance of patriarchy, which is long standing in the majority Buddhist religion and culture, many women have hung-up clotheslines of Women’s sarongs/ long skirts (called thamein) to protect protestors, knowing that the military, mostly men, will be reluctant to walk under them (a traditional religious belief that walking under a woman’s thamein will bring bad luck). Female medical volunteers have also been tending to wounded civilians on the streets.
The United Nations Secretary General has called the use of lethal force by the Myanmar military “unacceptable.” Economic sanctions against the military regime have been imposed by the United Kingdom and the United States.
However, in the past, economic sanctions against the junta regime have never ceased the tyranny. The military has a long history of weathering trade bans, economic sanctions, to the extent of impoverishing their own citizens as seen in the aftermath of the 2008 Nargis Cyclone that killed 140,000 people.
The Tatmadaw has been emboldened by its relation with Beijing, whose main concern during this crisis has been its 800 km gas pipeline, a source for 6 percent of China’s gas needs. The Chinese government has continuously blocked the UN Security council condemnation of the coup, disregarding it as “internal matters.”
This latest military coup and the aftermath of brutal violence perpetrated by Tatmadaw towards Myanmar’s people has proved to be another legitimacy crisis for ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Founded in 1967, the regional bloc aims to “maintain and enhance peace, security and stability in the region,” among others.
Yet, throughout its history, multiple military coups have occured in Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines, threatening the security of the region. The continuous persecution of Rohingya people by Myanmar’s regime, the most recent one having occurred beginning in 2016, also resulted in the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis that has impacted the whole region.
Why does ASEAN – the sole regional governance institution in Southeast Asia – struggle to solve these crises? To answer this question, we need to understand the history behind the founding of ASEAN itself.
Unlike the more bottoms-up process of Europeanization in the European Union (EU), the regionalization of “ASEAN Community” has taken a more top-down approach. Ever since its inception by five foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines in a beach resort of Bang Saen, Thailand, back in August 1967, ASEAN has been a platform for young, recently decolonized nations in Southeast Asia to strengthen their shared identities for common goals of economic development and prosperity. As such, state sovereignty takes a driving seat.
To quote Adam Malik, then Foreign Minister of Indonesia, it envisioned Southeast Asia developing into “a region which can stand on its own feet, strong enough to defend itself against any negative influence from outside the region.”
The vision was perhaps justified at the time, given the peak Cold War circumstances, when the region became a battleground of US and Soviet Union proxy wars, culminating in the 20 years-long Vietnam War, the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the bloody US-backed 1965-66 coup & regime change in Indonesia.
The five founding members of ASEAN, fully aware that all countries in the region were not done with their internal state-building process, agreed that the cardinal principle which binds the entire regionalization process should be non-interference.
Article 2 of the ASEAN Charter stipulates that ASEAN and its member states “shall act in accordance with the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN Member States”, among others.
Although this principle has been proven effective in sustaining ASEAN unity through its 53 years of existence, we should not turn our eyes away from the fact that this principle has also been the main hurdle for ASEAN to deal with delicate issues, e.g. human rights violations by its member states. Ironically, protection of human rights is also mentioned within the very same Article 2: “respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice.”
ASEAN has shown its true face amid the current Myanmar crisis. A statement by current Chair, Brunei Darussalam on the Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (IAMM) held a day after the coup, failed to mention Myanmar until the eighth of its ten paragraphs. Furthermore, the other eight ASEAN member states are divided in their responses to the coup.
With the current principle of non-interference in hand, ASEAN seems like a toothless organization where everyone wants to enjoy good times, but turn their backs when things turn sour.
As a consequence, the only cards left to play are those wielded by the international community.
As the Myanmar military junta escalates its violence against innocent civilians, it is most urgent that the international community considers its Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The United Nations and relevant international organizations must hold the junta accountable for its grave crimes against humanity, restore peace and democracy, and oust the junta once and for all. Any possible solution must seek to reform the 2008 Myanmar constitution, and promote inclusivity and social reconciliation among Burmese majority leaders and its 135 ethnic minority groups.
In the long-term, ASEAN must seek to redefine its principle of non-interference and revamp its Charter.
We should not let this principle be used both as pretext and “Get Out of Jail Free card” by military juntas across the region, which would undoubtedly tarnish the credibility, legitimacy and international reputation of ASEAN in the future.
This is particularly very important, considering a “new Cold War” looming in the region.
Otherwise, ASEAN will continue to be perceived by its people as a forum for kongko-kongko1 among Southeast Asian ruling elites and military dictators.
In the meantime, all power to the brave people of Myanmar who continue to fight for their freedom and democracy.
1 In Bahasa Indonesia, kongko-kongko is defined as casual talk among friends with shallow, unmeaningful topics, usually done in warung or coffee shops. The word is derived from both Malay and Hokkien languages, which were used as lingua franca in the region for centuries.
Nemhoilhing (Hoi) Kipgen is a second-year Master in Development Studies (MDEV) student at the Graduate Institute. She is a Burmese (Kuki) American who spent two years working with Peace Corps Thailand. Through her time at the Institute, she would like to stimulate the discourse around her country of origin through her research, findings, and lived experiences. You can reach her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Samuel Pablo Pareira is a second-year Master in International Affairs (MIA) student at the Graduate Institute. Indonesian born and raised in Jakarta, he was an economic journalist for CNBC Indonesia, with extensive coverage on the archipelagic country’s domestic & international trade, manufactures, and palm oil industry. He also occasionally covered Indonesian domestic politics. You can reach him on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
Feature photo from Wikimedia.