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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations convened a special summit last week to address regional concerns, with the coup and resulting violence in Myanmar at the top of their list.

The summit produced a “five point consensus plan” to “facilitate mediation of the dialogue process” between military leaders and the opposition that won last year’s elections and was overthrown by the coup. The agreement is an important first step but it is only meaningful if followed up by concrete action. Concerned governments must ensure that there is real dialogue and that the junta begins the process of restoring democracy to Myanmar.

On Feb. 1, a military junta led by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing overthrew the democratically elected government of Myanmar, charging that the November election results had been invalidated by massive fraud. That allegation is unfounded — but facts matter little to the Tatmadaw (the country’s military), which fears the loss of its power and privilege after the landslide victory by democratic forces led by the National League of Democracy.

Widespread public protests ensued, which the military met with violence. Human rights groups estimate that there have been more than 750 civilian deaths and nearly 4,500 people have been arrested. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League of Democracy, and other leaders of the former government are among the detainees.

Since the coup, the U.N. Security Council has passed three statements calling for an end to the violence and the release of detained prisoners. Remarkably, all were supported by Russia and China, which typically oppose measures that could be seen as interfering in the internal affairs of states. A special envoy for Myanmar has been named as well, but she has been unable to secure permission from the junta to travel to the country.

Cognizant of the need to address a regional problem, ASEAN convened a leader’s summit in Jakarta last Saturday, the first in-person head of state meeting since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, a sign of “ASEAN’s concerns over the situation in Myanmar and ASEAN’s determination to help Myanmar out of the crisis,” according to Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. That show of determination was undercut by the absence of the heads of state from Laos, the Philippines and Thailand, which sent their foreign ministers instead.

Still, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was told by Indonesian President Joko Widodo, host of the meeting, that the situation in Myanmar was “unacceptable” and that “violence must be stopped, and democracy, stability and peace in Myanmar must be restored.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin called the situation “deplorable” and said it “must stop immediately.” Political detainees should be released “promptly and unconditionally.” That sharp language is a break with ASEAN protocol, which favors bland pronouncements to avoid any hint of interference in domestic affairs.

The meeting’s five-point consensus echoed those views, calling for “immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar” and the exercise of “utmost restraint” from all parties, the launch of a “constructive dialogue among all parties concerned” to find “a peaceful solution in the interests of the people,” the creation of a special envoy to facilitate the dialogue process, the provision of humanitarian assistance and a visit to Myanmar by the special envoy to meet all parties concerned.

Gen. Min Aung Hlaing listened. He also met on the sidelines of the meeting with the U.N. special envoy, although there is no sign of a readiness to let her visit the country. Critics charge his complacency reflected a calculation that whatever offense he may have swallowed was outweighed by the legitimacy bestowed by an invitation to the meeting, although ASEAN officials, speaking anonymously, said that the general was not treated like or addressed as Myanmar’s head of state.

The National Unity Government, created by the National League of Democracy and other opponents of the junta, was not present nor was it invited to the ASEAN meeting. That would likely have been a step too far for the organization. It responded to the summit with caution, demanding substantive action.

Other governments were a little more positive but acknowledged that words are not enough. In Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato called the five-point consensus a “first step toward improving the situation,” and reiterated calls for the swift release of those arrested and detained. The European Union’s foreign policy chief echoed that language while China called the meeting “a good start … to de-escalate the situation” in Myanmar.

Experts warn that Myanmar increasingly resembles a failed state, with the economy projected to shrink 10% this year, although more dire forecasts double that rate. Foreign investors are freezing projects or ending them; trading partners are refusing to buy Myanmar-made products.

The U.N. World Food Programme worries that up to 5 million people face food insecurity over the coming year as prices rise for staples and other essentials. This will compound longstanding troubles with various ethnic groups, raising the prospect of floods of refugees.

ASEAN deserves credit for recognizing that business as usual would not suffice. As Muhyidden noted, the organization’s bedrock principle of noninterference “is not for us to hide behind, it cannot be a reason for our inaction.” Significantly, a crisis “in one ASEAN member state is not going to solve itself without affecting other member states.”

Self-interest should drive action by an organization too often associated with grand rhetoric and little follow through. Japan, and other friends of Myanmar and ASEAN, should help them along.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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