Burma between China, martial law and ethnic conflicts

Burma between China, martial law and ethnic conflicts

While Western media only report about the attrocities of the Burmese military against the NLD and the Burmese democratic opposition, they often forget about the oppression of the ethnic minorities by the military which never stopped. Aung San Suu Kyi tried her best to come to a peace deal with the ehtnic minorities and had peace talks with them before the military coup, when Rohingya activists attacked a Burmese police station and sparked an escalation spirale and crack down and ethnic cleansing by the Burmese military supported by a extremist Buddhist monk movement which Aung San Suu Kyi found hard to condemn due to the factual power relations that the military still had enormous influence in the semidemocracy. That damaged the positive image of the Nobel Peace Prize winner in the view of many parts of the international community. Now after the coup the ethnic minorities think about fighting against the military openly , even as the underground government of the NLD agreed to abolish the Burmese 2008  constitution and to strengthen federalism in Burma as the following contribution makes clear:

“For some the nightmare has returned, but for ethnic people the nightmare never stopped

But just as our nightmare did not start with the coup, neither did our struggle.

Esther Wah

Published on Mar 13, 2021

When the military seized power on February 1, arresting elected National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, the current nightmare started.  

The people of Myanmar already know what life is like under a military regime: No rule of law. No right to speak or to move freely. A poor education system and a lack of healthcare. Social problems, economic stagnation, and a loss of livelihoods. No human rights.

But for ethnic nationalities there is also an added dimension: fear.

While the media focus has largely been on the protests against the coup in Myanmar’s major cities, there has been little attention paid to the uniquely challenging plight of the country’s ethnic and indigenous peoples, who make up at least 30 percent of the population. There has been little coverage of military operations now occurring in ethnic territories. 

There is no recognition that for us, this nightmare never stopped.

Before the coup, in December 2020, fighting was already escalating between the Myanmar military and the Karen National Union’s (KNU) armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in Karen State’s Mutraw District, known as Hpapun in Burmese, and in Ler Doh (Kyaukkyi) Township in Bago Region. 

An estimated 5,000 villagers fled their homes, becoming internally displaced people (IDPs), scattered throughout the forests, forced to survive without schools, medicine or adequate shelter. 

The fighting extended to Kawkareik Township, Karen State, following the coup. The Myanmar military launched mortars into villages and farmland, disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods, giving them no choice but to run and hide in the jungle. They know from experience that if they are caught by Myanmar soldiers, they will be forced to be porters, or even shot and killed. 

An additional 2,000 people were displaced by the post-coup clashes, bringing the total number of IDPs to around 7,000 at the time of writing. Fighting continues still, with people terrorised daily. 

While the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), signed by a minority of ethnic armed organisations, appeared to initially reduce episodes of armed conflict in southeastern Myanmar, it did not necessarily reduce conflict, nor did it create security or stability for ethnic communities in conflict areas. Following the NCA, clashes and military atrocities actually increased in Kachin, northern Shan, and Rakhine states. 

For this, the NLD consistently provided the military with political cover. 

When the NLD came to power after the 2015 general election, the domination of ethnic people long practised by the military continued in different ways. Pressures to “develop” increased, as we were informed of projects planned for our lands ranging from monocrop plantations to mining ventures to hydropower dams. 

We were not consulted about these plans and we did not give consent. Our customary land laws were ignored, ethnic armed organisations’ land policies disregarded, and our calls for peace and federalism denigrated. Our voices were never listened to. The projects mostly went ahead anyway. 

The NLD continued what the Thein Sein government started in 2012, with the passing of the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law. These statutes affirmed that all land in Myanmar was the property of the state, in accordance with the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. Land confiscation by the government and private companies became legalised. Land grabbing and natural resource extraction increased in ethnic areas that were subject to decades of brutal offensives by the military. Legal mechanisms created to deal with complaints were inept and ineffective. 

There was no any political will to address the plight of ethnic people who suffered in the name of the NLD’s vision for “development.” 

Under the NLD, legal reforms–such as 2018 amendments to the aforementioned laws, and the introduction of a new Forest Law–were used to further cut indigenous people off from their ancestral lands. Our customary lands were categorised as “vacant,” as though we did not exist, and were subsequently handed out to private companies or local officials to control and exploit as they wished. 

Customary land tenure and rights, integral to our survival, have never been protected under Myanmar law. Though the 2016 National Land Use Policy outlined an intent to do so, it was not legally binding. This created tensions between indigenous communities, investors, and the Union government, which, in turn, has led to increased food insecurity, poverty, and political instability. 

The position that ethnic and indigenous people have been in for the last five years–caught between the military’s guns and the NLD’s repressive laws–cannot be described as freedom. 

Seven decades of military domination have left a deep, unmistakable trauma across ethnic communities. The familiar pattern of forced portering, extrajudicial killings, military attacks, arrests of local leaders, and the destruction of property continues, even as scores of courageous people in Myanmar’s urban areas risk their lives to protest the regime. 

There are multiple reports detailing the imprisonment of the NLD’s leadership, and the persecution of party members on the ground. But the constant fear we live with largely continues to go unnoticed and unreported. While some Burmese people are now acknowledging the long-standing suffering of ethnic and indigenous communities, many are still ignorant that this reality exists in their own country. 

We have endured war, authoritarianism, exploitation, chauvinism. But just as our nightmare did not start with the coup, neither did our struggle. Our fight is for national equality, democracy, federalism, self-determination, and the right to live in peace without fear. 

The General Strike Committee of Nationalities (GSCN), a leading voice in the Civil Disobedience Movement, has defined objectives that we should all be able to embrace: release political detainees, abolish the dictatorship, abolish the 2008 Constitution, and build a federal democratic union based on equality and the right to self-determination.

It breaks my heart to see the people of our country gunned down while demonstrating against the military coup. These youth hold no weapons, only hope for a better future. 

It is my hope that the Burmese people will understand why we do not want to go back to living under a system designed by the 2008 Constitution, or under a government controlled by the NLD. At this critical moment, I ask you to stand together with ethnic nationalities in shared compassion, committed to respecting us all as equals.


The danger is that an all out civil war is starting in Myanmar/Burma between the ethnic groups and the army which could create a new Syria in South East Asia. And then the question is if China won´t interfere as it wants political stability in order to integrate Burma in its New Silkroad , Mekong dam, RCEP and pipeline architecture.

Chinese property in Burma is already under attack as the South China Morning Post reports:

“Chinese in fear in Myanmar after attacks on factories

  • Buildings in industrial zone torched and two employees wounded as anti-Chinese sentiment rises in coup aftermath
  • China calls on Myanmar’s authorities to protect the community’s life and property

Chinese investors in an industrial zone in Myanmar said they might have to arm themselves after dozens of factories were vandalised and torched on the weekend in an outbreak of anti- Chinese sentiment.

Chinese tabloid Global Times, affiliated with People’s Daily, reported on Monday that 32 Chinese-invested factories in the Hlaingthaya industrial zone in the commercial capital Yangon had been damaged since Sunday, with two Chinese workers wounded and 240 million yuan (US$37.8 million) in property losses.

Chinese state broadcaster CGTN reported that attackers armed with iron bars, axes, and petrol set fires at the factories’ entrances and to warehouses. Vehicles and nearby shops were also vandalised.

Fires set at Chinese factories in Myanmar during deadliest day of anti-coup protests

Martial law was imposed on Hlaingthaya and several other districts of Yangon on Sunday night but Chinese businesspeople said another Chinese factory was torched just after martial law went into effect.

Citing advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, Reuters reported that security forces killed at least 22 protesters against the country’s military coup in the industrial area on Sunday after the factories were set ablaze.

One Chinese factory owner said that more than 20 arsonists riding motorcycles carrying Molotov cocktails and knives broke into factories in the zone, smashing property and looting before setting the buildings ablaze.

“Plumes of smoke rose from the industrial area and the raging fire continued until three or four o’clock in the morning,” he said, adding that he lost US$200,000 in property when his warehouse in the zone was torched on Sunday.

“As foreigners, there is nothing we can do.”

Hlaingthaya is one of the biggest industrial zones in the city, with more than 100 Chinese-invested garment factories.

The attacks come as Beijing is seen as being supportive of the military junta that took power in a coup on February 1.

Beijing urges Myanmar to protect Chinese citizens after factory arson

Demonstrators have massed outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon in recent weeks, calling on Beijing to condemn the coup.

Chinese officials have said that Beijing was not aware of the coup before it happened, and that it is not backing the military junta.

Chinese businesspeople said they had increased security for their properties.

“We have sealed all the windows of factories and assigned more security guards to patrol with electric batons. We also bought a large number of fire extinguishers today,” another businessman said.

Lee Htay, an ethnic Chinese operator of a transport business in Yangon, said some in the business community were considering whether to arm themselves.

“But we are very cautious. Such moves might not go well with the military side,” he said.

Lee said his worst fear of a repeat of the 1967 anti-Chinese riots was becoming a reality.

He said some factories were destroyed even though they were joint ventures between Chinese and Myanmese businesspeople.

“I heard all the Japanese, Korean and Singaporean companies have been raising their own national flags, trying to tell the mobs that they are not the target,” he said.

Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Myanmar has advised Taiwanese companies operating in the country to fly the island’s flag and hang signs stating they are from Taiwan to avoid being confused with China.

Some Chinese in Myanmar have called for Chinese citizens to be evacuated from the country but the factory owner said this could be complicated.

“Some Chinese who work for companies want to go back, but entrepreneurs who have their own entities won’t consider leaving unless the situation is out of control,” he said.

“There are more than 400,000 Chinese people here and many of them are doing business. It is impossible for them to give up their businesses and go back.

“There is also no clear information from officials yet. I will make a decision if the situation gets worse.”

On Sunday night, the Chinese embassy urged Myanmar to take action to stop violence and punish perpetrators.

“China urges Myanmar to take further effective measures to stop all acts of violence, punish the perpetrators in accordance with the law and ensure the safety of the life and property of Chinese companies and personnel in Myanmar,” it said.

China also called on the people of Myanmar to express their demands in a lawful manner, according to the statement.

Henry Chan, senior visiting research fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the situation would be brought under control now that China had put pressure on Myanmar’s military and police to protect Chinese investment there.

“As the Chinese government has put pressure on the military government to send police or troops to defend Chinese factories, as long as the army does not split and cause civil war in the future, the situation will not be out of control,” he said.


The CP China´s mouthpiece, the Global Times already warned protesters not to attack Chinese companies, property and citizens in Burma.

“Perpetrators who violently attacked Chinese factories in Myanmar must be severely punished: Global Times editorial

By Global Times Published: Mar 15, 2021 01:22 AM

Several Chinese-invested factories in Myanmar were smashed, looted or burnt by delinquents. We strongly condemn such barbaric acts. We strongly urge Myanmar side to stop this kind of crimes, punish the perpetrators and compensate Chinese factories for the losses. 

The violent attacks were apparently well organized and planned. One twitter account tweeted a warning to the Myanmar military government saying: „If one civilian killed one Chinese factory will become ashes.“ This verified account belongs to „Founder and Executive Director of Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN).“ BHRN, based in London, was founded in 2015. This is just one example of inflammatory instigations. 

This account openly takes Chinese factories as hostage of Myanmar situation. This is a serious crime. Twitter is supposed to suspend this account and the owner of this account should also be held accountable and face legal punishment. 

It’s well known that China doesn’t interfere heavily in Myanmar situation, meanwhile it tries its utmost to promote peaceful settlement of the crisis according to law. It’s in line with China’s diplomatic tradition. Almost all ASEAN member countries hold attitude similar to China’s stance regarding Myanmar situation. China holds friendly ties with all parties in Myanmar. No matter which party holds power, Myanmar maintains friendly cooperation with China. 

Since the sudden change in Myanmar’s situation last month, the US has asked China to condemn the actions and impose sanctions to the Myanmar military. This is not in line with China’s consistent position. China will certainly not accept it. Actually, none of ASEAN members has the same attitude as the US and the West. Myanmar’s neighboring countries have coincidently held the same stance with profound realistic reasons. This is in line with the moral principles of independence and autonomy of each country. The West has no right to point an accusing finger at them.

China is the strongest country in the region and we respect every country’s handling of their own internal affairs. From a long term perspective, this basic policy has become an important condition for our neighboring countries to keep their independence and autonomy. All parties involved in the Myanmar hope China will support them, but if China really imposes its own position and interests on the country, it will go against the long-term wishes of Myanmar society. Therefore, even though some people are willing to see China intervene, they don’t have any reason to justify such perspective. Using factories funded by China as hostage to maneuver in Myanmar’s domestic struggles will never be permitted. 

Myanmar contributed to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which were born in Asia and are widely practiced in the continent. Various ethnic groups live in Myanmar, resulting in complex contradictions within the country. An active interference in Myanmar’s domestic affairs will bring unbearable consequences. Because of the close proximity between China and Myanmar, if Beijing decides to intervene, it will start a nightmare in their bilateral relations. 

We strongly appeal those in Myanmar who want China to interfere in the Myanmar situation can keep a clear head and eye on their long-term independence and autonomy. The West is now publicly supporting the National League for Democracy (NLD), but they have previously fiercely blamed the NLD for the Rohingya issue. Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation has changed radically in the West’s public opinion. China respects Myanmar people’s right to handle their own affairs, and emphasizes a peaceful solution under the framework of Myanmar constitution and laws. This is China’s sincere goodwill toward Myanmar.

Those who maliciously defame China and instigate attacks against Chinese factories are common enemies of China and Myanmar, they must be severely punished.


The immanent reaction of the Burmese military was to impose full martial law, which will not only aim at some arsonists, but at the whole democratic mass movement.

“After attacks on Chinese businesses, Myanmar imposes ‘full martial law’ in Yangon


Myanmar’s oldest ethnic minority insurgent group, the Karen National Union, which signed a ceasefire with the army in 2012 after decades of fighting, also condemned Sunday’s violence and said it fully supported the demonstrators.

Anti-Chinese sentiment has risen since the coup, with opponents of the army takeover noting Beijing’s muted criticism compared with Western condemnation.

China’s Global Times blamed instigators for the arson and called for their punishment. It said Beijing was trying to promote a peaceful settlement of the crisis.

Protest leader Thinzar Shunlei Yi said Myanmar people did not hate their Chinese neighbours but China’s rulers had to understand the outrage felt in Myanmar over their stand.

“Chinese government must stop supporting coup council if they actually care about Sino-Myanmar relations and to protect their businesses,” she said on Twitter.”


Whle China is getting closer and closer in its support for the military junta, the NLD and the ethnic groups join forces, parts of the Buddhist monks seem also to support the Burmese military. The times of the Safran revolution are over when the Buddhist monks played a supporting role for democratic demands. The military already released the leader of the nationalist- religious fundamentalist monk movement from prison and other leading Buddhist monks seem now to  team up with the generals as The Irrawady reports:

“Criticized, Myanmar’s Influential Monk Close to Coup Leader Breaks Silence on Killing Protesters

Military’s chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his wife Daw Kyu Kyu Hla are seen with Sitagu Sayartaw after making a donation to Sitagu International Buddhist Academy in 2019. Photo- State owned newspaper

By The Irrawaddy 5 March 2021

Yangon—One of Myanmar’s most influential Buddhist monks has finally broken his silence over the military’s brutal assaults on anti-regime protesters.

Sitagu Sayadaw, who is close to the coup’s leader, has joined other monks in calling on the junta to stop killing unarmed people.

Initially known for his fiery sermons against previous military regimes from 1988 to the early 2000s, Sitagu Sayadaw these days sings a different tune.

When the quasi-civilian government led by former generals was in power from 2011 to early 2016, the monk publicly said he wished the then President U Thein Sein would be re-elected. Since that time, the monk, who is also known as Ashin Nyanissara, was seen by some people as someone sitting on the fence.

Later, Myanmar’s military chief Senior General Min Aung Hliang—now the coup leader—became a familiar face among his high-level followers.

When the regime’s troops opened fire on protesters across the country in opposition to the coup, killing about 50 people following the coup on Feb. 1, the 84-year old monk was tight lipped. That was in stark contrast to his actions more than 30 years ago.

People, including his long-time followers, were broken hearted and questioned his silence over the civilian killings.

They dropped comments at his Facebook page, saying, “They are killing people. Please stop them.”

Some went further: “Staying tight lipped make you sleep well, Sayadaw?”

Some followers who had held him in high esteem for his previous anti-dictatorship activism simply questioned whether the monk’s silence this time meant he was supporting the generals who launched the coup.

“I feel really sad to see the religious mentor I once much believed in has turned this way,” one wrote.

By expressing great concern about the crackdown, the nine leading monks of Shwe Kyin Sect, including Sitagu Sayadaw, on Thursday urged coup leader Min Aung Hlaing to immediately stop the deadliest assaults on unarmed people and to avoid robbing or destroying people’s property.

Shwe Kyin is one of Myanmar’s nine Buddhist clergy sects; and its members are known for strictly obeying the Vinaya, the codes of conducts for Buddhist monks. Sitagu Sayadaw is the second-most influential leader of the sect.

In their statement, monks also urged the senior general to be a good Buddhist.

Another famous monk facing criticism is U Kovida, who is well-known as Vasipake Sayadaw for his practicing of silence vows. He has reportedly cut off contact with social media after facing intense criticism by Myanmar social media users for allegedly supporting the military coup.

The monk from eastern Shan State is also well known as an astrologer and for having a close relationship with Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and his wife Daw Kyu Kyu Hla.

He has been accused of providing the coup leader with his astrological advice for the takeover.

He was reportedly blamed for advising the senior general to tell security forces to shoot protesters in the head.

Most of the people killed over the last month and early this week were hit in their heads.

In February of last year, the monk was also with Min Aung Hlaing when the senior general and his wife placed the “Hti” umbrella atop Bagan’s ancient Htilominlo Temple, following in the footsteps of some of Myanmar’s most powerful figures including his predecessor, Senior General Than Shwe. Many people believed that the ceremony was seeking divine blessings for his kinship.

Another important ideological aspect is the connection between Buddhism and nationalism. On the one hand, Buddhism tends to produce very patient, authoritarian and mostly peaceful subjects. It is also significant that so far civilian forms of resistance have dominated, armed struggle mainly came and comes from ethnic, mostly non-Buddhist minorities, but this does not mean that the capacity to suffer is unlimited. Cambodia was also a very Buddhist country, but then brought about the Khmer Rouge with all its brute force. That is no longer to be feared today as Communis except China, Vietnam North Korea and Cuba has vanished. But while Buddhists are more capable of suffering compared to other religions, this example demonstrates when a certain critical point is exceeded, it often tips to the other extreme, especially since the Burmese youth are more radical than the 1988 generation and their parents. The military legitimizes itself by means of a Bamen nationalism, which declares Buddhism to be the dominant culture, which is accepted by many Burmese and many Buddhist monks. The Buddhist monks also play an important role. Same in the saffron revolt, where they set the tone, but parts of the monks now also support the military , especially those fundamentalist nationalist-Buddhist militant monk groups who supported the military so fanatically during the Rohingya crisis. In addition, the military has amnestied and released several of these monks in order to use them as auxiliary troops, both ideologically and militarily.

The Buddhist monks also played an important role in the Vietnam War, not to mention the Buddhist monk who selfimmolated himself in Saigon in protest against the Catholic US puppetr Diem and caused the mood of the population to change so that the US had Diem murdered by the CIA not to drive the angry majority Buddhist population to the Viet Cong.Selfimmolation of Buddhist monks or Buddhist as a form of protest was also used by the Chinese fundamentalist Buddhist mass sect Falungong in China, when Falungong members selfimmolated themselves on the Tiananmen Square or the Dalai Lama also used the selfimmolation of Tibetean monk in China-Tibet to get attraction from  the international community. However, China is not a Buddhist country, even if there are 200 million Buddhists out of 1,3 billion Chinese, but Chan Buddhists and not Tibtean Buddists and the CCP managed it to portray the selfimmolation of the Falungong members  and the Tibetean monk as obvious symptoms of  a dangerous evil superstitious cult promoted by foreign powers against China. However, in Burma such a selfimmolation could be harder denounced by the military as Burma is a dominant Buddhist society and Buddhis part of the Bamen nationalsm of the military. And the pacifist and peaceful elements in Buddhism can also be used to bring Buddhist main stream society and the the Buddist monks against the violent and brutal military as it betrays the peaceful side of Buddhism.It is a little bit like Christian debates about the Old and the New Testament, the theory of a just war and the Sermon on the Mount.

Facing a constellation where China is becoming the even more decisive factor, while only the US and the EU imposes targeted sanctions, Japan, India and other Asian countries support more a “silent engagement”, some political commentators demand a new role of the ASEAN as mediator who redefines its former policy:

“To Mediate In Myanmar, ASEAN Needs A New Template

Anti-regime protesters in Yangon staged a rally against ASEAN in February. / The Irrawaddy

By Johanna Son 14 March 2021

ASEAN hasn’t been gaining fans from its handling of the Myanmar military’s coup. But if it is able to craft a new template, the grouping may still count as the best pragmatic bet for getting a conversation going with that country’s men in uniform in order to, first, stop the brutal crackdown on its people.

If the junta were an armed group of hostage takers — some might find that an apt description — ASEAN is being looked to as a negotiator to open communication lines to the hostage takers.

This may be an unpleasant role, but a necessary one in the wake of the Feb 1 military coup.

By now, just about every country, from China and Japan to the United States to the European Union, as well as the United Nations, has said they are looking to work with ASEAN as an actor in the Myanmar equation.

The question “what can ASEAN do?” can be broken down into these: What might it tap into from its “constructive engagement” with Myanmar decades ago, or its having been a non-threatening bridge to the outside world after the Nargis disaster in 2008? Is there a lesson from how ASEAN has been able to send humanitarian aid to Rakhine?

These have been ASEAN’s way of working, often under the radar. It has had a relationship with Myanmar from the time the military running the country. Over the last decade too, Southeast Asian — and East Asian — countries have built economic links with Myanmar, so that Singapore is its biggest source of foreign investments and Japan, its biggest aid donor.

How are these engagements relevant today? The crisis challenges ASEAN to turn its not-so-nimble nature into a tool for negotiation, even realpolitik, without wasting time.

While ASEAN “emphasizes the importance of listening,” it needs to be clear to Myanmar’s military about its expectations and stress that communication does not confer legitimacy of any sort, Indonesia’s former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa told Al Jazeera, using the word “junta.” Unlike before, Myanmar today is an insider to ASEAN – a connection that Western governments do not have.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi says the country is in touch with the military and the elected legislators in the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (National Parliament). Indonesia and Singapore have spoken out against the violent crackdowns and killings of peaceful protesters, and called for releasing Myanmar’s elected leaders.

At the UN General Assembly’s informal meeting in February, other ASEAN countries expressed concern that varied in specifics, nuance and some language.

Among East Asian countries, Japan’s ambassador to Myanmar Ichiro Maruyama met the military’s foreign minister, U Wanna Maung Lwin, on March 8 and conveyed Tokyo’s call for a stop to the violence against civilians and the release of all detainees.

“China is … willing to contact and communicate with all parties on the basis of respecting Myanmar’s sovereignty and the will of the people, so as to play a constructive role in easing tensions,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on March 7. China’s image problem — many in Myanmar believe that China was behind the coup — has made it harder for it to be heard.

Could ASEAN, asserting its centrality, use its being “friend to all, enemy of none” to craft a coalition that mixes the western approach of targetted sanctions with its style of dialogue?

Beyond Old Ways

“The present crisis cannot be overcome by each side put into a rather extreme situation, making it a zero-sum game. At the end of the day, negotiation is the only way out,” Soe Myint Aung of the Yangon Centre for Independent Research told a discussion by Singapore’s ‘Straits Times’. “Many people in Myanmar see this as a struggle between good and evil, but we should still keep some grey areas open.”

“It’s difficult. It’s challenging, but every step towards getting a breakthrough starts with mediation,” agreed Moe Thuzar of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “We have a divided society, where polarizations can either cause those divisions to go deeper or, through mediation and bringing people to the table, you can maybe try to minimise the strong feelings of radicalization.”

Moe Thuzar suggested “creative” options such as ASEAN advising the UN in a “consultative mechanism” of countries, or using a “friends of the ASEAN secretary-general” tack. Soe Myint Aung says ASEAN could name a special envoy for Myanmar not just to talk to the military, but create space to host a dialogue with elected civilian leaders. Bring in countries that are past and future ASEAN chairs, Moe Thuzar adds, as this will be a long-term project of building structures and habits toward civilian rule. “It’s not an instant gratification moment.”

The Myanmar crisis has put the spotlight on how diplomacy must show results on the ground, going far beyond negotiating the wording of statements.

The art of diplomacy can allow parties to talk without formally recognising each other. Meetings can be non-meetings and non-papers circulated to allow discussion of sensitive topics. ASEAN ways allow ideas to be tested in non-official tracks such as think tanks. Diplomacy can unfold away from the public glare.

Natalegawa said he hopes there is “already a script” for ASEAN’s handling of the crisis. But Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that ASEAN and outsiders had “zero influence” on Myanmar in the past.

Watched online by many in between nightly internet shutdowns, the Myanmar uprising shows that the region is quite different from even a decade ago. Where diplomacy plays out in more quiet ways, today’s environment and digital habits pose a challenge in that very little is considered said or done until it is posted online or said in public spaces.

The Myanmar public, in fact, has already become part of ASEAN’s direct constituency, whose views it needs to factor in, not least in explaining why a conversation needs to be held with coup makers who are without legitimacy. Regional is local, and local is regional.

This was evident in the backlash Indonesia got after a Reuters report said that Retno Marsudi was to ask the military to keep to its initial promise to hold a new election within a year. ASEAN governments got a clear message about what is unacceptable at a time when young people know they are in a connected global community.

As protesters see friends and kin beaten, arrested or killed (more than 90 so far), it becomes harder to explain to them that in ASEAN terms, its two statements have gone further than before by telling Myanmar, in diplomatese, to adhere to its legal commitment under the ASEAN charter to the rule of law, constitutional government and fundamental freedoms.

Could ASEAN change with the times, update its worldview with its constituents’ expectations about “doing the right thing” and use this to build consensus? Citizens in the region’s less than democratic settings find the brutality in Myanmar appalling too. This is a very low bar when reputational damage is real, and rising, with any sign of acceptance of the junta.

These days, placards in Myanmar seek “R2P” or the “right to protect” action under a UN intervention tool meant to prevent mass murders such as those in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. But many have said this points to false hopes and disappointment.

Reality check

In Southeast Asia and elsewhere, the disapproval of deplorable behaviour in their midst, can, and has, lasted for many years.

Indonesia dealt with nearly three decades of criticism of its occupation of East Timor, which became independent in 2002 after it — not outsiders — decided to hold a referendum. The Khmer Rouge killed more than 1.5 million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. Their hostility toward Vietnam after it invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge led ASEAN, the United States and China to back the genocidal group’s occupancy of Cambodia’s UN seat until the eighties.

These are from the past, but provide a reality check that legal or moral legitimacy do not always shape international relations or realities.

Diplomats like to call ASEAN a family whose members sit at the same table despite disagreements. Indeed so, but as in real life, family ties can be the most toxic relationships of all.

(Johanna Son, Bangkok-based/founder editor of the Reporting ASEAN series, has covered Southeast Asian issues for three decades. Her views are her own.)

However, after the declaration of martial law, it remains to be seen if there can be any deescalation anymore, if mediator can resolve the escalating conflict and if China will stick to its alleged noninterference which is already questioned on parts of the Burmese opposition.

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