Vibhanshu Shekhar and D A Wiwik Dharmiasih, New Delhi/Denpasar,Bali
Published at The Jakarta Post (03/10/07)
The Myanmarese junta’s announcement of a manifold increase in oil and gas prices sparked a popular protest in Yangon in August. Since then, the protest has emerged as the biggest mass-movement in the last two decades, encompassing almost all of southern and central Myanmar and representing every spectrum of society.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar has emerged as a litmus test for the credibility of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a regional community. Today Myanmar stands on the brink of economic disaster, mass-starvation and political genocide, and is a possible security threat to neighboring countries.
Such a situation not only threatens to create a humanitarian crisis but also defeats the primary ASEAN objective of forming a regional community. While some ASEAN countries have independently been vocal in their criticism of the dismal pace of democratic reform and the large-scale human rights violations by the military junta, ASEAN as a collective regional grouping has not been able to come up with any concrete proposal to manage the ongoing crisis.
While the current developments in Myanmar have brought to the fore the acute livelihood crisis facing the entire country, it has also opened a window of opportunity for resolving the crisis. Given large-scale international pressure and persuasion from China, the military junta has so far desisted from killings on the scale of those following the uprising in 1988.
For the first time, the Chinese response has been positive; they have restrained the junta from an armed solution to the problem. Perhaps, China does not wish to be seen as siding with a regime practicing genocide and wants to project itself as a responsible player in the region. This has great importance for China’s growing engagement with ASEAN.
India has also — though late — awakened to the need for a peaceful resolution of the ongoing crisis, demanding national reconciliation and democratic reform in Myanmar. The late Indian response can be attributed to the fear of being trumped again by China, which has received appreciation from the international community for restraining the junta.
As individual external pressure has limitations, ASEAN should gather stray initiatives rather than hoping that China and India will take a leading role. It will indicate ASEAN’s lack of wisdom if ASEAN expects China and India to play a leading role in resolving a crisis which falls into the ASEAN domain. Moreover, if China or India plays an effective role in resolving the crisis, it will nibble at the legitimacy and credibility of ASEAN as a regional platform and may deal a major blow to the golden dream of constructing an ASEAN community. It is time for ASEAN to get its act together and play a leading role in resolving the crisis, as it did in Indochina in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Equally true is the proposition that if ASEAN takes the initiative and asks China and India to come on board, it is unlikely they would refuse. Over the years, both China and India have been trying to develop closer relationships with ASEAN and ASEAN enjoys a good deal of leverage in the foreign policy articulation of both countries.
Inaction on the part of China and India would certainly compromise their shared ambition of playing a major role in the peace and stability of the ASEAN region. It is time for ASEAN to capitalize on its growing relationship with China and India by persuading the junta to resolve the crisis and to initiate democratic reform in the country.
China, India and ASEAN should not forget they are not only neighboring countries but also stakeholders in a politically and economically stable Myanmar. The current crisis, if unchecked, may lead to a mass-flight to border areas of neighboring India and Thailand, as happened in 1988.
India should not forget that an unstable and oppressed Myanmar will bring more trouble for India, especially when its provinces bordering Myanmar have witnessed bloody insurgencies during the last 15 years. Such a scenario runs contrary to the Indian hope of managing the insurgency by securing help from the military junta.
Similarly, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia are respectively the first, second and third largest Myanmar trading partners and investors and so can influence the generals in resolving the crisis. Therefore, ASEAN has to initiate the conflict management exercise and act as the facilitator of the dialogue mechanism. The ball is in ASEAN’s court and the next seven days will determine whether ASEAN can address crisis situations in its own region or not.
Vibhanshu Shekhar is research fellow at the Southeast Asia Research Programme Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, India and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
D A Wiwik Dharmiasih is a freelance researcher based in Bali, Alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on International Relations, New Delhi. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Picture Note: Indonesian Students and Indonesian Society in India celebrated Indonesian Independence at Embassy of Indonesia in New Delhi.
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