The Latest on Southeast Asia: June 24, 2021
International condemnation of the military junta in Myanmar has mounted in recent weeks. The G7 leaders issued a statement on June 13 strongly denouncing the February 1 coup. The leaders also called for the release of political prisoners, expressed support for peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators, urged the swift implementation of ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus, and demanded unfettered humanitarian access. While not surprising, the statement was an important affirmation of unity among the world’s seven wealthiest democracies. The consensus also comes amid a flurry of new sanctions against the junta by the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union.
The UN General Assembly on June 18 passed a non-binding resolution calling on all nations to refrain from selling arms to the Myanmar military. Russia, China, India, and four ASEAN members—Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei—abstained. But the other six members of the grouping supported the resolution, suggesting their increasing frustration with both the junta and the fracturing of ASEAN consensus on the matter. Myanmar’s UN ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who opposes the junta and has refused its orders to step down, expressed disappointment at what he called a “watered down” resolution.
The military leadership in Myanmar, meanwhile, has worked to tighten relations with China and Russia, its two largest arms providers. This combined with their abstentions suggests that Beijing and especially Moscow have no intention of cutting off arms to the Myanmar military. On June 20, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing flew to Moscow, where he and Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev discussed the “fight against terrorism” and foreign interference in Myanmar, and committed to a closer bilateral security relationship. On the way to Moscow, Min Aung Hlaing had stopped off in Irkutsk, the Siberian manufacturing hub for Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets. Immediately after returning from Russia, the junta chief met with China’s ambassador Chen Hai. Afterward, the embassy posted to Facebook referring to Min Aung Hlaing as Myanmar’s “leader.”
This seeming recognition of the junta chief as head of state sets China apart from even Myanmar’s other neighbors. Fellow ASEAN members continue to tacitly legitimize his regime by engaging with its representatives, including at the June 6-8 China-ASEAN summit in Chongqing, while refusing to give the opposition National Unity Government a seat at the table. But they are careful to refer to Min Aung Hlaing simply as “commander-in-chief.” That this is more than window dressing, at least for some ASEAN members, was evident by the angry reactions to Brunei’s recent diplomatic efforts. The sultanate, which chairs ASEAN this year, dispatched Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof alongside ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi—himself Bruneian—to Myanmar on June 4-5 to meet with Min Aung Hlaing in a failed attempt to implement ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus. The trip, which didn’t have the formal blessing of other ASEAN members, was seen as granting far too much legitimacy to the junta.
The United States is also wrestling with how to engage the junta, or at least international bodies to which it is still being welcomed, without legitimizing it. On June 16, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin attended the virtual ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus at which the military-appointed defense minister Myat Tun Oo was present. The image of both sharing a screen provoked some criticism. Austin used the opportunity to strongly urge Myanmar’s military to “change course” and did not interact directly with Myat Tun Oo. But the meeting foreshadowed the much more difficult choice Washington could face in the fall regarding whether President Biden should attend ASEAN-related summits at which Min Aung Hlaing will likely be present.
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