Myanmar’s coup d’état falters. Activists call for tougher action by ASEAN. | Military news

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – A day after his capture by Myanmar soldiers, Saw Tun Moe’s decapitated head was found impaled on the spiked gates leading to the smoldering remains of a school building.

The 46-year-old math teacher was a vocal critic of Myanmar’s military rulers and ran schools for the rival Government of National Unity (NUG) – a government set up by ethnic leaders, activists and the generals’ elected politicians against the military being removed from office – in the central Magway region

“He was aware that if he fell into the hands of the junta, he could end up like this,” one of Saw Tun Moe’s colleagues told the Irrawaddy newspaper after his death in late October. “Even then he took the risk and decided to teach at the NUG school.”

Across Myanmar, men and women take similar risks.

Outraged by the military’s overthrow of the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi just 10 years after the start of a shaky transition to democracy, and appalled by the crackdown on unarmed protesters in the immediate aftermath of last year’s coup, the people of Myanmar have taken power matters into their own hands. Some, like Saw Tun Moe, have gone on strike and joined the NUG’s parallel education and health services, while others, despite very little training or weapons proficiency, have taken up arms against the military, including by joining ethnic armed forces Groups or newly formed civilian militias known as People’s Defense Forces (PDFs).

Frustrated in his attempt to cement his coup, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing responded with even more violence.

The military has resumed political executions, burned entire villages and bombed hospitals and schools, even an outdoor concert – attacks that human rights groups say could constitute crimes against humanity.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a global crisis mapping group, estimates that some 27,683 people have died in Myanmar from political violence since the military seized power in February last year. The group says it has recorded nearly 15,000 incidents of violence, including armed clashes and airstrikes, in the 22 months since the coup.

Only in Ukraine, where Russia launched a bloody invasion on February 24, is the death toll higher.

“Junta may not survive until 2023”

Analysts say Myanmar has not seen violence on this scale since its struggle for independence in 1948. The conflict has spread to areas that have long been peaceful, such as Magway in Myanmar’s central plains.

Known as the Dry Zone, the plains are home to the majority of Bamar Buddhists in Myanmar. So far, the military has been largely spared the violence that the military repeatedly uses against ethnic armed groups fighting for more autonomy in the country’s border areas.

But now, according to ACLED data, about 647 PDFs are fighting the military in the dry zone alone.

And these armed groups have turned to bombings, targeted assassinations and raids on military convoys.

Under pressure, the military has set up its own civilian militia called Phyu Saw Htee and launched a widespread arson campaign, razing homes and villages to root out any resistance forces. The fighting is causing untold suffering and has also forced hundreds of thousands to flee.

Despite all the brutality, however, experts estimate that almost two years after the coup, the military only controls 17 percent of the country.

“Armed resistance, backed by a widespread nonviolent movement, is now so pervasive that the military risks losing control of territory if it is unable to allocate resources to an active defense,” The said Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of legal experts, said in a September report (PDF).

“From northern Kachin State down to southern Tanintharyi and from western Chin on the border with India to eastern Karenni State on the border with Thailand, Myanmar’s military has not been represented on so many fronts since the late 1940s.”

The council, made up of former UN Myanmar experts – Yanghee Lee, Marzuki Darusman and Chris Sidoti – even went so far as to claim: “The junta may not survive 2023 unless something changes that.” current course dramatically.”

‘Are you only good for golf?’

Despite the situation on the ground, the international community has failed to include the NUG in discussions about Myanmar’s future and is relying on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Myanmar joined in 1997, to deal with the crisis. But the 10-member regional bloc has so far avoided any official cooperation with the NUG, despite agreeing last year on a “peace plan” that calls for promoting constructive dialogue in Myanmar.

As ASEAN leaders meet for a summit in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Friday, activists are urging the group to crack down on Myanmar.

“Hello? Will you only be good to play golf and make statements?” asked Debbie Stothard, founder of ALTSEAN, a rights group. “The crisis in Myanmar poses one of the most serious threats to economic and regional stability, especially the human and economic security in the region, and yet ASEAN is doing less than a tenth of what the European Union did in response to the Ukraine crisis.”

In addition to engaging the NUG, activists are calling on ASEAN to demand that Myanmar’s military agree to specific measures and deadlines to end hostilities. They say the bloc must continue to ban generals from its summit meetings and extend the ban to working-level meetings.

Anything less could allow the military to delay the process, giving it time to consolidate power ahead of elections that experts say are due to be held in 2023.

Charles Santiago, a former Malaysian lawmaker and founder of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said the military should not be given the chance to dictate the terms of the vote.

“This has to be stopped,” he told Al Jazeera. “Leaders must make a clear statement that ASEAN and the international community will not accept elections in Myanmar next year. This must be done, otherwise ASEAN will be seen as collaborating with the Myanmar junta.”

Foreign ministers sit at a long table with a large circular ASEAN sign above them
Southeast Asia foreign ministers met in Jakarta to discuss the political crisis in Myanmar ahead of the ASEAN summit in November [File: Handout/ Indonesian Foreign Ministry/ AFP]

Observers see at least one ray of hope as Cambodia hands over the ASEAN presidency to Indonesia at the forthcoming summit.

Jakarta has preferred to work with the NUG, with or without the military’s permission, and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said ASEAN must tackle its problems head-on rather than sweep them under the rug.

But despite the lack of a breakthrough so far, some observers say ASEAN remains the key to solving the crisis in Myanmar.

“The fact that ASEAN is a regional organization of which Myanmar is a member makes it the only institution that has the legitimacy and, ideally, the willingness to address the issue,” said Lina Alexandra, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“Of course we don’t deny (the) possibility for other international actors to take the lead, but unfortunately we don’t see any intention from them until now. No one wants to get their hands dirty and everyone is busy with something else. Therefore, ASEAN should be the one leading the process, then the other actors will follow to support ASEAN.”

Additional reporting by Floorence Looi.

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