Asean, neighbours can break Myanmar impasse - Hindustan Times
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Asean, neighbours can break Myanmar impasse

ByRajiv Bhatia
Apr 23, 2024 10:05 PM IST

Prudence demands that a studied engagement of a few ASEAN States and all five neighbours of Myanmar as potential mediators or facilitators be given a chance.

On April 17, a spokesperson of the Myanmar military government stated that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most popular leader, and former president U Win Myint were moved from prison to house arrest. As part of the Thingyan festival celebrations, over 30,000 political prisoners have also been granted amnesty and were being released.

(FILES) Protesters hold an image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration outside the UN office in Bangkok on February 1, 2024, to mark the third anniversary of the coup in Myanmar. Myanmar's junta has moved jailed democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from prison to house arrest, a source told AFP on April 17, 2024. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
(FILES) Protesters hold an image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration outside the UN office in Bangkok on February 1, 2024, to mark the third anniversary of the coup in Myanmar. Myanmar's junta has moved jailed democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from prison to house arrest, a source told AFP on April 17, 2024. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)(AFP)

But these developments, though welcome, do not conceal the fact that, three years after the coup, the political and security situation in Myanmar has markedly deteriorated. Peaceful agitation against the coup gave way to a countrywide outbreak of armed clashes with police and army personnel. The junta responded with aerial bombardment of villages and towns by the air force. October 2023 opened a new era of a string of defeats of the army by the Resistance comprising ethnic armed groups and people’s militia units. The fall, one by one, of Laukkaing in the north, Paletwa in the west, Ramree in the south, and Myawaddy in the east to the Opposition forces represents a truly dark chapter in the history of the Tatmadaw.

Fighting continues unabated in several parts of the country, especially in the sensitive and strategically important Rakhine state. All eyes are now set on the port town of Sittwe. If it falls, it could be a serious blow to the military government. New Delhi’s recent decision to withdraw its consulate from there and relocate it to Yangon which hosts the diplomatic corps is an indicator of the grave situation. “Myanmar will no longer be the same as it was before 2021 as the ethnic armed organisations are changing the internal configuration of Myanmar,” said Soe Myint, editor-in-chief of Mizzima News. These organisations control most of the country’s international borders with China, India, Bangladesh, and Thailand.

Dispatches from the battle fronts reveal a consistent story of an ascending Resistance and a weakening military. Before the coup, the Myanmar military personnel numbered, according to experts, some 370,000. Three years of fighting with its people has depleted the military’s strength, firepower and morale. Troops now number about 150,000 of which “roughly 70,000 are combat soldiers,” according to Ye Myo Hein of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). This explains the junta’s latest decision to impose conscription, compelling young people — both men and women — to join the Army. It has triggered a huge exodus of the youth to foreign lands. For this author who spent years working and travelling in Myanmar, it is heartbreaking to see the nation crumbling from the inside.

What are the prospects of the raging conflict giving way to conciliation in the coming months? As the country stands virtually divided today into two parts, namely the regions still controlled by the Army and those areas where the Resistance is in charge, neither side considers a peaceful settlement through dialogue an option. At the same time, neither side seems confident of a total victory over the other soon.

This implies that one of the three scenarios, or a mixture of sorts, may come about. First, a protracted conflict and civil war that results in more bloodshed, displacement of people, their untold suffering, and further damage to the economy. Second, another major defeat for the Army, such as the loss of a big town like Mandalay, could be a game-changer. Third, a radical decision by the junta to effect a change in leadership or release Aung San Suu Kyi, which results in a dramatic reshuffling of cards in the political game.

Myanmar’s internal challenges can be addressed and resolved only by its people. But they cannot do it alone, without external assistance. Endeavours by the UN Security Council, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy, Japan’s special envoy Yohei Sasakawa, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have all failed to deliver. The Five Point Consensus (FPC), crafted by the ASEAN three years ago, raised hopes but it could not achieve any success because of the wide chasm between the junta and the Opposition.

Only one country — China — seems active in mediatory efforts now. After a few hiccups, it succeeded in helping the warring sides to agree to a ceasefire in the Shan state along the Myanmar-China border. The new Thai government desires to undertake a similar effort in the Myanmar-Thailand border region.

Prudence demands that a studied engagement of a few select ASEAN States and all five neighbours of Myanmar as potential mediators or facilitators be given a chance. They should first agree among themselves on a broad approach to resolving major differences on key political issues. Thereafter, they could attempt to offer their vision to the regime and the Resistance. Issues on the agenda should include the cessation of fighting, delivery of humanitarian assistance, re-building of the economy, and launch of a national dialogue. It must encompass an agreement on the vision of “a new Myanmar”, a nation with a federal democracy where the Army withdraws, within a short time frame, from the domain of governance.

To assist the government of select ASEAN States and five neighbours, reputed experts on Myanmar from the region bear a special responsibility. Their reading of Burmese history and the national character of the Myanmar people, and their expertise in comprehending the diversities, challenges and potential of this remarkable nation, should be put to effective use. Let the experts come up with a “peace proposal” first, and then the concerned governments can pick up the baton and run with it.

Rajiv Bhatia is distinguished fellow, Gateway House, former ambassador to Myanmar and author of India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours. The views expressed are personal

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