Southeast Asian countries should recognize the slaughter in Myanmar for what it is

Anti-coup protesters outside an ASEAN regional meeting on April 20 in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP) (AP)
Anti-coup protesters outside an ASEAN regional meeting on April 20 in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP) (AP)

On Saturday, leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet in Jakarta for an emergency summit to discuss the crisis unfolding in the streets of my home country, Myanmar. The group has invited Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military commander in chief, to the table. He is directly responsible not only for the Feb. 1 coup that has led to the slaughter of more than 700 protesters, but also for the genocide of my community, the Rohingya, as well as horrific abuses against many other ethnic minority groups.

Over the past three months, the Myanmar junta has failed to consolidate its power, and its violence is threatening regional stability. Instead of helping Min Aung Hlaing solidify military rule, ASEAN should make clear to him that he needs to step down and respect the democratically elected civilian government.

This is a man who, according to the United Nations-backed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, should be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Offering him a seat at this summit does not just risk legitimizing a brutal regime that seized power through sheer force, terror and lies, it also signals to the millions of protesters who are putting their lives on the line for Myanmar’s democratic future that our neighbors have abandoned us and that our abusers will go free.

Our deep skepticism about the regional bloc’s strategy comes from experience. In 2018, ASEAN addressed the Rohingya crisis only as a humanitarian “matter of concern,” overlooking the military’s brutality against us. A 2019 ASEAN “preliminary needs assessment” on repatriation of the Rohingya who had fled to Bangladesh again failed to condemn or even acknowledge the military’s campaign of murder, torture, rape and destruction that forced nearly 1 million Rohingya to flee in the first place. ASEAN’s weakness, masked as “non-interference,” has only emboldened Min Aung Hlaing and his peers.

Now that the military has turned its guns on children, health-care workers and peaceful protesters, what message will regional leaders choose to send us?

So far, the signs are ominous. Even though protesters overwhelmingly remain faithful to the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience, and even though the security forces are almost entirely responsible for the growing death toll, ASEAN has called on “all parties” to refrain from violence. The group has prioritized seeking a solution through “constructive dialogue” — meaning, apparently, a conversation between the murderers and their victims. Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on stopping the killing?

Just as with its response to the Rohingya genocide, ASEAN has failed to take any action beyond these trembling statements. How is constructive dialogue possible with a man — and an institution — determined to cling to power at all costs?

Some countries have spoken up. Malaysia and Indonesia have warned that the unrest in Myanmar, also known as Burma, poses a threat to stability of the region and have expressed concern about the Rohingya. Singapore has called on the military to stop using deadly violence, and the Philippines has urged Myanmar security forces to exercise restraint.

These governments should lead the remaining six ASEAN members to establish clear principles and strategies for the group’s role. These should include condemning the junta’s state of emergency, denouncing the military’s unlawful use of force, respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, and pressing for an inclusive federal democratic union.

As the situation deteriorates each day, the threat it poses to peace and security throughout the region only grows. ASEAN states — particularly Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia — should not return any asylum seekers from Myanmar to a country where their lives and freedom are at risk.

The Rohingya — as well as the Kachin, Shan, Karen, Rakhine and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar — have known only too well for decades the horror and deprivation the military is capable of inflicting. It’s this suffering that led the U.N. to create a mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of crimes, that triggered the International Criminal Court to open an investigation of the forced deportation of Rohingya into Bangladesh, and that spurred Gambia to bring Myanmar to the International Court of Justice for violating the Genocide Convention because of the military’s atrocities against the Rohingya.

Holding Myanmar’s murderous military to account isn’t just about protecting the rights of certain groups. The military’s coup has shown only too clearly that everyone pays a steep price for impunity. A new democratic, peaceful and inclusive Myanmar cannot survive without holding accountable those responsible for the brutality of the past.

ASEAN has declared that it seeks to build a “people-oriented and people-centred ASEAN Community, where our peoples enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This, too, is what protesters are fighting for. We are asking ASEAN member states to end their indecision, which is endangering safety throughout the region, and stand with us in solidarity instead.

Wai Wai Nu is a human rights and democracy activist, a former political prisoner, and the founder and executive director of the Women’s Peace Network in Myanmar.

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