As the leaders of Southeast Asian countries meet today to continue the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit, the crisis in Myanmar will remain at the top of their agenda. The first day of the summit was marked by the exclusion of Myanmar’s junta leadership and statements of concern over the Myanmar crisis by ASEAN leaders. U.S. President Biden addressed the leaders virtually, echoing “grave concerns” over Myanmar even as he sought to signal the broader importance of U.S.-ASEAN relations by announcing $100 million in new investments in the region.
But nine months since the Myanmar military coup, it is clear that ASEAN has failed. While ASEAN must be part of the solution to the Myanmar crisis, the United States and like-minded countries can no longer afford to defer to it for leadership.
The coup has had dire humanitarian consequences on the people of Myanmar, and an impending mass onslaught by the military is set to make the situation much worse. The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has tripled since the start of the coup on Feb. 1, 2021. More than 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes, and several thousand have fled across borders to other countries, particularly India and Thailand.
A recent buildup of troops across a large stretch of northwestern Myanmar, including Chin, Magway, and Sagaing states, has sparked fears of imminent “clearance operations” targeting opposition fighters and civilians alike. The anticipated indiscriminate ground attacks, heavy artillery, and air strikes have led to warnings of mass atrocities that could kill and displace thousands more.
To date, U.N. Security Council members and other influential countries have looked to ASEAN to take the lead in tackling the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN leaders agreed to a five-point consensus plan, including ending violence, promoting dialogue, providing aid, and appointing and allowing a visit of a Special Envoy to Myanmar. But none of these points have seen significant progress. The Special Envoy was only appointed after months of haggling and is yet to visit Myanmar. ASEAN aid in the amount of $1.1 million to assist the COVID response was welcome but a drop in the bucket for what is needed, even as the junta continues to directly block aid delivery and to pursue policies that are making the COVID pandemic worse – including targeting health workers and confiscating supplies.
The decision not to invite junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to attend the ASEAN Summit was the first significant step taken by ASEAN to censure the junta. This is a notable change, but not nearly proportionate with the growing tragedy.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people in need remain within reach of refuge and cross-border aid along Myanmar’s borders. Yet, Myanmar’s neighbors have largely prevented refugees from entering, and no cross-border aid has been provided. China has built hundreds of miles of barbed wire fencing. Thailand has reportedly pressured refugees to return and has prevented access for the U.N. Refugee Agency and international NGOs to new arrivals. In India, local officials have sought to help an estimated 15,000 refugees who crossed the border, but national leaders have refused aid and sometimes sought to deport refugees. Thailand, in particular, with its existing network of local civil society networks along the Thai-Myanmar border is well-placed to begin facilitating the delivery of cross-border aid.
The United States and like-minded countries, including more forward-leaning ASEAN countries, should form an international contact group to push bolder action on Myanmar. At the same time, immediate steps must be taken by Myanmar’s neighbors to address the current suffering, including through providing refuge to those fleeing and allowing for cross-border aid.
A visit by U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet to the region last week signaled a potential shift. Chollet indicated that his discussions in Singapore urged further limiting of the junta’s access to overseas financial assets. His visit to Thailand resulted in the Thai Foreign Ministry stating that cross-border aid was now being discussed. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s virtual meeting with Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government on Monday may further signal a greater willingness to push for bolder action. This is encouraging, but those suffering on the ground are still waiting for a change.
Despite the important marker set by ASEAN in excluding Myanmar’s junta leadership from the summit, the likelihood of ASEAN as a group facilitating meaningful delivery of aid and pushing for targeted sanctions, an arms embargo, and accountability remain slim.
In short, with ASEAN showing little inclination to take the necessary steps, a global coalition must redouble efforts to address the root causes of the crisis and to provide immediately available relief and refuge now.