Criticism over Myanmar ASEAN deal with military coup leader

Questions raised over the lack of commitment to freeing political prisoners and restoring democracy.

Protests took place in Jakarta as Min Aung Hlaing, who seized power in Myanmar in a coup on February 1, attended a special ASEAN summit in Jakarta [Dhemas Reviyanto/Antara Foto via Reuters]

Human rights groups and people in Myanmar have criticised an agreement between Min Aung Hlaing, the general who seized power in a military coup nearly three months ago, and Southeast Asian leaders to end the violence-hit nation’s crisis, saying it fell short of restoring democracy and holding the army to account for killing hundreds of civilians.

There were no immediate protests in Myanmar’s big cities a day after the armed forces’ chief flew to Jakarta to meet leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and agreed to a five-point plan that called for an immediate end to violence and for “all parties” to exercise restraint.

“ASEAN’s statement is a slap on the face of the people who have been abused, killed and terrorised by the military,” said a Facebook user called Mawchi Tun on Sunday. “We do not need your help with that mindset and approach.”

According to a statement from Brunei, the current ASEAN chair, the consensus was reached on five points – ending violence, constructive dialogue among all parties, acceptance of aid, a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate discussions and a subsequent visit to Myanmar.

The statement had no timeline, and it did not mention political prisoners, although the chairman’s statement said the meeting “heard calls” for their release.

“ASEAN cannot paper over the fact that there is no agreement for the junta to release the political prisoners currently in detention, including senior political figures who presumably would be involved in any negotiated solution to the crisis,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“Not only were the representatives of the Myanmar people not invited to the Jakarta meeting but they also got left out of  the consensus that ASEAN is now patting itself on the action for reaching.”

A three-finger salute during a ‘red paint protest’ against the military coup in Myingyan in Myanmar’s Mandalay division on Sunday [Handout/Facebook via AFP]

Myanmar was plunged into crisis on February 1 when the generals arrested elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and took power for themselves. The coup triggered a civil disobedience movement and mass protests around the country to which security forces have responded with increasing violence.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an advocacy group that has been tracking arrests and deaths, says 748 people have been killed since Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was removed. Its records show 3,389 in detention.

“Statement doesn’t reflect any of people’s desires,” wrote Nang Thit Lwin in a comment on a news story in domestic Myanmar media on the ASEAN deal. “To release prisoners and detainees, to take responsibility for dead lives, to respect election results and restore democratic civilian government.”

Aaron Htwe, another Facebook user, wrote: “Who will pay the price for the over 700 innocent lives.”

Maintaining pressure

The military has defended its coup by alleging that the NLD’s landslide victory in November’s election was fraudulent, although the election commission dismissed the objections.

The ASEAN gathering was the first coordinated international effort to ease the crisis in Myanmar, which neighbours China, India and Thailand and has been in turmoil since the coup. Besides the protests, deaths and arrests, a nationwide strike has crippled economic activities.

Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government (NUG), comprising of pro-democracy figures, remnants of Aung San Suu Kyi’s overthrown administration and representatives of armed ethnic groups, said it welcomed the consensus reached, but stressed the military government had to be held to its promises.

“We look forward to firm action by ASEAN to follow up its decisions and to restore our democracy,” said Dr Sasa, a spokesman for the NUG.

Robertson said pressure needed to be maintained and that economic sanctions should be expanded to include “the oil and gas revenue that continues to fill the junta’s coffers”.

The United States, United Kingdom and the European Union have already imposed sanctions on the generals who led the coup and the armed forces sprawling conglomerates – MEHL and MEC.

ASEAN, which operates on the basis of consensus and non-interference, has not imposed sanctions, although Singapore and Malaysia have called for an end to the violence.

On Saturday, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the summit had been a success.

“It’s beyond our expectation in getting the outcome from today’s meeting,” Malaysia’s state news agency Bernama quoted him as saying.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters