When even dictators see a need for inclusion
The brutality of Myanmar’s military rulers against a national uprising has pushed other Southeast Asian nations to engage with the country’s pro-democracy forces.
Half of Southeast Asia’s nations have authoritarian regimes, which made it a welcome surprise last Friday when the region’s grouping of 10 countries decided to open talks with the pro-democracy opposition in war-ravaged Myanmar.
This bold step will not only help drain legitimacy from the country’s ruling but isolated military, but also send a message of the need for political inclusion, as Indonesian President Joko Widodo put it. “We must not allow the situation in Myanmar to define [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations],” said the leader of ASEAN’s most populous country.
ASEAN’s decision to engage the pro-democracy National Unity Government – a group run by elected leaders ousted in a 2021 military coup – runs counter to the regional body’s policy of not interfering in each other’s domestic affairs. But many ASEAN leaders have become disgusted with the military’s massacres, executions, and bombings of civilians in Myanmar – actions supported by Russian-provided weapons with tacit support from China.
The civil war in Myanmar, in other words, has become a threat to ASEAN’s tradition of creating a region of stability that provides low-key – and inclusive – diplomacy in coping with Asia’s dangerous fault lines.
After the coup against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February last year, ASEAN did set a five-point plan for the military to end its scorched-earth tactics against a national uprising and restore democracy. But the regime under coup leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has only increased its attacks even as the National Unity Government’s forces have set up an alternative “shadow” government and worked closely with Myanmar’s suppressed ethnic minorities.
Myanmar’s economy is near collapse and, with the military now only in control of an estimated 20% of the country, ASEAN has seen how much the people of Myanmar want their democracy back – much like the world has seen Ukrainians fight for their freedom.
Despite the bloc’s authoritarian members, its neighborly move to reach out to Myanmar’s democratic forces sets a model of inclusion for both the country and the region.