As heart-breaking evidence of massacres by the Myanmar Junta hit our TV screens, international efforts to put pressure on these unelected military leaders are completely missing. This is largely because the regional body ASEAN is led by largely autocrat-led states who refuse to back a democratic alternative to the Myanmar military.
So what should the international community do about Myanmar?
Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister, calls on the United Nations to step in, with the backing of Biden and other regional powers.
He warns that the country is sliding into civil war and this would destabilize the region. The cruelty of the Myanmar Junta has provoked the arming of the opposition, whose heavily armed groups are mobilizing across the country for civil war.
Piromya is a key player in the region and has set up an alternative to ASEAN composed of political leaders from Cambodia and Malaysia and this is bidding to replace ASEAN. He is in a unique position to comment on Myanmar’s breakdown and how the West could present an alternative.
New evidence of massacres by Myanmar military of dissidents makes a response by Western governments all the more critical. The West has the economic power to move against the Junta, it also has diplomatic and political tools at its disposal. What is stopping such a move are vested interests among Asian governments and ASEAN on the one hand, and fear of upsetting China, the Myanmar protector, on the other.
Kasit Piromya, a Thai diplomat, Democrat Party politician, and former People’s Alliance for Democracy (“Yellow Shirts”) activist was Foreign Minister of Thailand from 2008 to 2011 and is seeking to push ASEAN to act on this outrage. I interviewed Piromya earlier this year about ASEAN’s failure.
ASEAN’s failure to deliver anything on Myanmar is important. It is now six months since the coup. Is it your fear that Myanmar is heading towards breakdown and even a possible civil war?
We can no longer rely on the other nine leaders of the ASEAN community to condemn or oppose the Burmese military. Most of the Asean leaders are autocrats or authoritarian. So, it would be very difficult for them from a spiritual, intellectual or philosophical point of view to take such a position.
The president of Indonesia should be the spokesman of ASEAN but he has become more inward looking.
So, in spite of the size of Indonesia in terms of its democracy advancement, it doesn’t have the ability to take the leadership. The responsibility must be passed on to the international community, namely, the United Nations Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the US Congress in particular and to a lesser extend the European Parliament and Japan, India and Australia. They could have done much, much more, especially as those like Japan have been major investors in the country’s development.
We must go back to the UN Security Council. In this context, the United States, under Biden, must play a most active role because democracy and human rights, again, has become part and parcel of the foreign policy direction and posture of the United States and they must deliver. They have to take the lead, they have to confront the Russians and the Chinese inside the UN Security Council and at the same time they should press the UN secretary general to play a more active role in taking the lead in talking to the Junta and to the opposition.
The international community and the UN leadership and the United States must play the Number one role.
Do you detect a hesitation in the United States, in taking on that lead role?
The United States is active in the Asian Pacific region and lately, has more or less, solidified cooperation. Biden has announced a foreign policy direction where democracy and human rights are one of its pillars. The United States is in the position to take the lead.
I think President Biden can regain the leadership role which was lost during the Trump administration. He has come out with an Indo-Pacific policy, he appointed Kurt Campbell as a Indo-Pacific Tsar. He used to work under Hilary Clinton in the Obama administration. I think Biden has been amassing experts on the Asia Pacific department in the White House. He should deliver on what he said. [Campbell was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration.]
And what do you want President Biden to do?
He has to challenge the Russians and the Chinese inside the Security Council, to ensure that they cannot supply arms, that they cannot shore up the military Junta.
It would be detrimental to everyone if there were a civil war. The number of refugees and displaced people would definitely upset the coalition of ASEAN countries. This will have repercussions for everyone.
Southeast Asia will become another area of discontent and conflict and limit its ability to govern itself. It will be a failed area if one cannot solve the Myanmar question.
Once President Biden takes the leadership, other countries will come along. At the moment the world has no leaders when it comes to this Myanmar question and everyone has been placing false hope on the ability of ASEAN [to intervene]. I did not believe from the beginning that this would happen.
Having worked in the ASEAN countries for 30 years, I know that it would not work. Lately, in the past few years, most of the member states have become more authoritarian; in addition to the absolute monarchy of Brunei, there is the one-man-show in Cambodia and two Communist parties in Laos and Vietnam. It doesn’t look good at all. In Thailand we have a semi-military government.
The international community has been hiding behind the ASEAN skirt, avoiding doing things, or giving false hope to ASEAN. They must realise that ASEAN cannot function. The international community would have to take the mantle upon itself.
The United States, The EU and Japan and Australia and New Zealand and India and South Korea .. all the democracies must work together. It’s not only the Myanmar question, the Chinese have been exploiting the idea of totalitarian one-party rule with economic capitalism. So, the US and other democracies are already challenged by this. Myanmar could be an arena where the contest between the multi-party system [of the West] and the one-party system [of China] gathers momentum.
If the UN doesn’t take the leadership, then it will relinquish its role as the leader of democracy and give way to the Chinese and the autocrats, and the Russians… that’s the beginning of the end for the ASEAN, for any attempt to have the whole region develop into a democratic sphere of influence.
Myanmar is composed of so many minorities and it was never a nation state, even before the British arrival. British rule did not lead to the formation of a nation state so democracy would be the only answer to federalism, to the pacification of the majority Burman people and the rest of the minorities which compose half the population. These include the Shan, the Mon, the Kayin and the Chin.
You cannot have the authoritarian Burman military ruling a very diverse country, one of the most diverse countries on Earth. The only answer is democracy.
The Burmese people tested democracy in 2010. For the past 10 years they enjoyed openness, market economics.. they enjoyed social media and freedom of expression and now they have been taken away. It’s a new ball game.
Ordinary people, both the Burman and the minorities, have had enough of authoritarian military rule, they know the atrocities committed, they know the violence and so on. It’s a new ball game and the leadership in Washington, in Brussels and in London, should be able to read the picture and stand with the majority, the democratic people of Myanmar. The people are democratic, and they need international support.
The National Unity Government, the representatives of the parliament, have come out in the open, asking for democracies to support them. So, this a request, this is not the imposition of Western democratic values on the Burman people, it’s a different situation.
You have to think about crimes against humanity, you have to think about a UN peace keeping force, UN medical and UN humanitarian aid. The United States can take the lead inside the United Nations to set up an international consortium to be led by the UN and coordinated by the UN and of course under the political leadership of the UN Security Council.
I don’t think the Chinese would oppose this because the Chinese have to be concerned about their national reputation, they don’t want to be identified with the military Junta, it’s not good for them in the immediate and long term.
Ordinary people would like to live under democracy and have their freedoms. The American government has to push the Chinese for cooperation and the two can help set up the dialogue between other stake holders.
Beijing can be the venue or Washington or Hawaii, Honolulu can be the venue, that would not be difficult.
I’m assuming that at the present time, the Chinese are securing their position in Myanmar, is that right?
I think they have been true to their word not to interfere in Myanmar’s internal politics.
I think that’s fair, the Chinese usually don’t interfere in the internal politics of countries.
The Chinese are much more astute, wise, and long-term thinking than to put all their eggs in one basket of the military Junta. They have to realise that this time the whole country — ordinary people, of every colour, religion, ethnicity — have opposed the military Junta. That’s a different game all together.
The military should be intelligent enough to stand with the people of Myanmar. The coup d’état has not been completed with a victory for the Junta. In fact, there is more opposition, more and more opposition and they are getting more recognition. Getting stronger.
Opposition by whom?
I know the Americans and the EU representatives, the diplomats, the South Koreans, the Italians, the Japanese government officials…politicians have been in touch with the NUG (National Unity Government).
National Unity Government
But there has been a lot of contact. There is an increasing recognition, and the recognition will become open once the United States takes the lead and United Kingdom and Australia could come in, and the whole of the EU members — maybe Hungary would not participate — but other individual members of the EU could come. The EU parliament could pass a resolution to recognise the NUG.
At the upcoming UN General Assembly session in September the international community needs to recognise the credentials of the NUG and deny the credentials of the military Junta’s special administrative council. That could be done.
What is preventing the United States, the EU and the Japanese and the UK from doing that?
If you only have rhetoric, and you don’t have the real political will or the guts to do it, then you are not fit for the position that you hold. When you came by democratic rule then you have to fight for democracy.
What means are required to push the Junta back. They are not going to just come to the table and say “Ok, sorry we didn’t realise you didn’t like us, we’ll go away now” and go back on our positions, it’s not going to happen is it?
No, they could be charged with crimes against humanity and genocide. Second, you could give them an amnesty if they give up power.
I take the Buddhist way, I don’t take the Christian-Judeo view of crime and punishment. I would give them a way out, and say to them that if they give up now they will not be charged with crimes against of humanity or genocide or whatever law Myanmar has. I would say your families will not be affected, you can still send your sons and daughters to study in Europe and America, so that’s another offer.
The UN can send in national observers from international peace keeping forces, the US could table this at the UN Security Council so that you are not giving away power to Aung Suu Kyi, who is hopeless.
An interim administration under the auspices of the United Nations should consider this as happened in Cambodia and East Timor. A UN Interim administration would be a good idea.
Very interesting, and from your knowledge now, is Myanmar, is the opposition becoming more forceful, they’ve got, I think, a military wing now, is that right, in the opposition? There is some sign of resistance now?
The opposition have allies, they lead the armed minorities. The Shan, the Kayin, the Mon, the Chin, all have armed forces, and they are in alliance with the NUG. That’s the first point. Second, friends in Myanmar, inside and outside, have informed me that almost every town hall is armed. There are self-defence forces in villages and towns. Everyone is armed in self-defence.
Their military still have their superiority because they have their drones and their artillery and the aircraft and the bombs. It’s not resistance [only] inside the cities, it’s country wide, it’s a new ball game, it’s not 1962, it’s not 1988, it’s 2021 and Burma/ Myanmar has changed. It’s a different game altogether, that’s why the coup d’état is still not completed.
They [the Junta] cannot control most of the country. The fact is that people are becoming more armed, they are determined to fight.
Where are they getting their arms from?
It’s not difficult because Thailand and Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos were arms traders for so long, because of the Indo-China war, the Vietnam War, the civil war in Cambodia and Laos, Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, the insurgencies in Malaysia, the insurgence in Thailand from the communists and later the separation from Muslims and so on.
Illegal trade in arms has been going on in exchange for opium. Corruption is everywhere among officials and the locals, big shot politicians. Acquiring arms is not difficult. In Thailand you can buy guns any time.
July 28th, 2021