Asean is urged to speed up its effort to support crisis-hit Myanmar with humanitarian and economic assistance in wake of a UNDP forecast that almost half of the population, or about 25 million, could fall below poverty line in six months.
“We are going to have an economic crisis on hand in Myanmar. Humanitarian assistance should be different to Nargis (Cyclone support in 2008) and should include economic assistance to help to tie in the Myanmar people during this difficult time, said Mr Virasakdi Futrakul, former Thai ambassador to Myanmar and former deputy foreign minister said.
Mr Virasakdi’s assessment was echoed by two other former Thai ambassadors and regional experts at a Clubhouse discussion on “Can Asean help to bring peace to Myanmar?” organised by Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 national media from 19 Asian countries over the weekend.
Ms Yuyun Wahyuningrum, Indonesia representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, called on Asean to immediately appoint a special envoy with a strong mandate to carry out the so called five-point consensus reached at the Asean Leaders’ Summit on April 24.
“It’s very important that Thailand and Indonesia work together on this. Perhaps the most important dynamic that needs to be brought forward. You can’t have an effective strategy of engaging Myanmar without Thailand and Indonesia, said Mr Michael Vatikiotis, Asia Director, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Malaysia.
Myanmar economy is on a downward spin as the military coup on Feb 1 brought people onto the streets on confrontation on a daily basis. The kyat value has fallen by 18 per cent against US dollar leading to inflated fuel price and costs of basic goods and shortages.
The United Nations Development Programme’s study revealed that 83 per cent of the Myanmar households had reported cuts in their incomes by almost half already by the Covid-19 impact. The agency projects that 48.8 per cent of the population could fall under poverty line, defined as income below US$1.15 per day in six months.
The World Bank has projected that Myanmar’s GDP could plunge by minus 10 per cent this year.
“I believe that time of the essence…the (recent) statement from military seem to backtrack but should not deter us…Humanitarian assistance is immediate focus and provide initial platform for a dialogue,” said Mr Sihasak Phuangketkeow, former Thai permanent secretary, in his comment at ANN’s Clubhouse session.
The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s term for military, had said in a state media that it is “positively” considering the Asean’s five-point consensus, which also covers facilitating dialogues with key stakeholders.
An informed source from Jakarta, which is the headquarters of Asean Secretariat, said Indonesia-led initiative is ready to move ahead pending an official go ahead from Brunei, which is an Asean chair.
Ms Yuyun said the Asean envoy to work on Myanmar should be either an Indonesian military or civilian. Among names suggested included former foreign ministers Marty Natalegawa and Hassan Wirajuda, or former deputy foreign minister Dino Patti Djalal.
Insiders from other Asean capitals have suggested big political names such as former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, or former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. But such has little chance of happening not least because of they are very old.
“I think Envoy not only to have capability and capacity but acceptance and ability to talk to different stakeholders in Myanmar and know the context of Myanmar very well, said Ms Yuyun.
Mr Sihasak is in favour of Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai’s proposals of “Friends of the Chair” that could comprise of two or three persons. They will only have to work with Myanmar but also engage in close coordination with Asean member states and other key players such as China, Japan, India, US, and the EU.
They all like Asean take the lead and like to see successful diplomacy – their support is crucial to lend weight to what Asean is doing, he added.
Mr Kobsak Chotikul, another former Thai ambassador, in his Clubhouse comment warned of harsh reality in dealing with the Tatmadaw and cautioned that Myanmar had gone through “a lot of” special envoys from UN, UNHRC and so on.
“In the past 20-30 years, Myanmar (military) appears to be able to deal with these so called special envoys who come….and they know how to thwart, and kick the ball down, pan down the road, how to evade, how to buy time,” said Mr Kobsak, who himself got the first-hand experiencein dealing with Myanmar officialsas the special adviser of a board set up by Aung San Suu Kyi to advise on the implementation of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposals on the Rakhine situation.
Ms Kanda Naknoi, Economic Professor and author based in the US, asked a pertinent question of the Myanmar’s “civil war” which needs supplies such as bullets and weapons as well as medical and other necessities.
“So, where they are coming from. A question that Asean can’t pretend there is no answer.”
“Can Asean help bring peace to Myanmar: Yes Absolutely! The question is at what cost? So will Asean or suppliers are willing to pass all these supplies to Myanmar military so the special envoy’s mission can be more effective?”
Mr Vatikiotis underscored the need for Asean to be inclusive in communication with all the stakeholders including “National Unity Government” and the ethnic minorities. “And it is important to engage military (and it) hold the key to gates of country, control the air space, they are the one to let the people in at the end of the day.”
He also called on Asean to prop up human resources at the Asean Humanitarian Assistance (AHA) which is presently far from equipped to deal with the Myanmar crisis.
Mr Kobsak said Asean should not have to reinvent the wheel. “We already have mechanism in place, the embassies …most have military and commercial attaches…(they) should be formed into liaison office to engage with Tatmadaw, all sides and civil societies even. They are already there and don’t need permission to enter.”
Mr Virasakdi underlined the importance of “trust” in Asean’s latest foray.
“Trust between Asean and Myanmar authorities, trust between population of Myanmar and Asean, and trust between Myanmar authorities and parties inside Myanmar both the Burmese and ethnic groups.”
“So underlining all these how you bring people with different perceptions of interest to be willing to sit down together and to discuss a peaceful resolution of their problems. I think that is the main challenge facing Asean, he added.
The former Thai deputy foreignminister also referred to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Asean worked to bring peace to Cambodia although it was a very long process and all kinds of diplomacies were practiced. “We tried everything, closed door, cocktail diplomacy, proximity talk, and ultimately what was the cause of the success was the sitting down together between Prime Minister Hun Sen and HRH Prince Sihanouk at that time in Paris.”
Both men agreed on two fundamental elements: first the problem in Cambodia must be solved by the Cambodian themselves and second, after they reached the solution, the solution would be ratified by international conference which would guarantee Cambodia neutrality, he added.
Mr Vatikiotis recalled as he was a young reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review at the time,”Really, it was about persuasion, quiet persuasion…and effort made by foreign ministers of Thailand and Indonesia to persuade the Cambodian factions to come together and everything stemmed from there but and persuasion and building trust were key.”
As of now, from Bangkok, the situation appears in dire desperation the report of 3.4 million people without adequate food. The number is rising and the economic crisis could result in Thailand facing a large number of economic migrants if the UNDP’s warning about poverty whirlpool is not stopped; and when the Thai public health system is already strained so much by Covid-19 pandemic.
The speakers agreed that the outcome in Myanmar will have effects on Thailand and the region.Mr Kobsak was adamant that the international community must not be complacent. “UN Security Council cannot sit by…this is an international issue of international peace and security, and they still have to play a role and we have to pull them along with us.”
They acknowledged that ultimately Myanmar people want a transition back to democracy, and naturally suspicious of Asean giving a limelight to the military.
Mr Virasakdi has few illusions, referring to an old Asian proverb: “if you want to get tiger clubs you must be willing to go into the tigers’ den.”
Asked what would be his wish by the end of the year, he said, “My hope is for the five-point consensus to be fully realized because the alternative is unthinkable. If there is an implosion in Myanmar – Asean will have Yugoslavia within our borders… Asean has a vital stake to try to foster peaceful solution and return of Myanmar to democratic rule and prosperity.”