The Myanmar conflict is a regional problem

ASEAN and others need to support Myanmar’s independent media and people in their battle for a truly democratic country

March 18, 2024 12:51 am | Updated 12:59 pm IST

In Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township, in Myanmar’s northern Shan State

In Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township, in Myanmar’s northern Shan State | Photo Credit: AFP

Three years ago, on March 9, 2021, army trucks pulled up in front of Mizzima’s headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar. Soldiers proceeded to ransack and loot the office of the independent media group, taking whatever they wanted. This scene was played out across the city, as the junta enforced legislation that outlawed Myanmar’s independent media scene on the heels of the coup in February 2021 to overturn the results of the November 2020 general election.

The situation on the ground

With many being targeted, a number of Myanmar journalists were forced to abandon their native places, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, or in regions in Myanmar that were outside junta control. This exodus of journalists has been mirrored by the population at large, as vast numbers of Myanmar citizens — over two million within Myanmar and some 1.5 million refugee seekers — have been forced from their homes since the coup. Estimates suggest nearly half of Myanmar’s population, i.e., 25 million people, is living in conditions of poverty. The result is a highly destabilising situation for Myanmar and its neighbours.

The fact that Myanmar’s independent media has been forced to maintain a presence in neighbouring countries is further evidence that the Myanmar conflict is not contained to Myanmar. It is rather a regional problem. The conflict has poured over its borders to impact neighbouring countries. Fighting and refugee flows pose grave security concerns for Myanmar neighbours, including Bangladesh, China, India and Thailand, while placing extreme humanitarian demands on these countries. Hostilities in Myanmar further serve as an impediment to envisioned trade and economic corridors throughout the region.

Meanwhile, the collapse of rule of law has led to an explosion of criminal activity with not only negative repercussions for Myanmar but also for regional countries victimised by this criminal underworld.

ASEAN’s struggle for stability

Following the February 2021 coup, the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and other international stakeholders looked to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to play a leading role in ending the conflict in Myanmar. One month after the looting of Mizzima’s headquarters, ASEAN reached a five-point consensus with junta leader senior General Min Aung Hlaing. However, it is difficult to identify any substantive achievements of ASEAN over the ensuing three years toward ending the conflict in Myanmar and stabilising the region. This is despite previous ASEAN chair Indonesia claiming to have held over 260 meetings with stakeholders in Myanmar to find a solution to the crisis.

The result is that despite the efforts of ASEAN and others to stop the violence in Myanmar, the conflict today is arguably worse than it has been in the three years since the coup. At the close of 2023, 316 of Myanmar’s 330 townships reported active fighting, with 40% of townships throughout the country now assessed to be out of the control of the junta. Meanwhile, nearly 600 resistance groups have emerged since the coup to challenge the position of the junta. Armed hostilities opposed to the junta were highlighted by Operation 1027 (the offensive) launched by ethnic forces at the close of October 2023. The offensive was successful in overrunning approximately 200 junta camps along with getting control of four border gates.

But, regardless of the desire of the people of Myanmar that has been clearly expressed, the State Administration Council (SAC), the self-styled name by which the junta refers to itself, still refuses to heed the calls of the Myanmar people for an end to military rule and the realisation of representative democracy. Instead, the junta’s response has been to intensify its persecution and suppression of the Myanmar population, including arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings, and indiscriminate attacks against the country’s civilian population and journalists.

The independent media soldiers on

Against this violence and intimidation, Myanmar’s independent media continues to report the truth. From bases that are located primarily in the neighbouring countries, Myanmar’s independent media continues to work to protect journalists and promote press freedom. It is forming an Independent Press Council to counter the Myanmar Press Council, which no longer functions the way it should and is instead staffed with retired military staff tasked with paying lip service to state propaganda.

As ASEAN and regional neighbours have been entrusted by international bodies when it comes to finding a pathway to ending the Myanmar conflict, it is time for these actors to prove that they are up to the task. Policymakers should approach Myanmar with an outlook focused not solely on Myanmar but, rather, with a comprehensive vision for the region’s stability and growth on the whole. Short-sighted policy such as accepting the outcome of any junta-rigged election in Myanmar, for example, will only serve to fuel the violence between the junta and the vast majority of the population. Far from stabilising the situation, it would only exacerbate the situation, internally and regionally.

With an understanding of the debilitating nature of the Myanmar conflict, policymakers must appreciate that the only way forward for Myanmar, and the region, is a truly democratic post-junta Myanmar. This is in meeting with the strategic, security, and economic interests of all countries in the region. To this end, I would like to call on all stakeholders, ASEAN and the others, to support Burmese journalists and the people of Myanmar in their struggle for a peaceful, stable, prosperous, and democratic post-junta Myanmar.

Soe Myint is Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Managing Director of Mizzima, Myanmar

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