Milk tea or cocktails?

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - February 27, 2021 - 12:00am

I’m fed up of defending Myanmar!” I think it was around 2006, at a conference of think tanks across the ASEAN region in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I don’t remember which of the experts said it, but I remember being surprised that such frank exasperation was being expressed on a panel in front of a decent-sized audience. These are not your human rights or civil society organizations with their fiery rhetoric, but policy wonks who are deeply involved in “Track II” activities.

Track I is official government-to-government diplomacy to resolve conflicts, whereas Track II describes unofficial activities and events that can range from major initiatives to small workshops, often arranged by third parties that can provide alternative avenues for dialogue. That conference I went to was a regular event that provided opportunities for informal contact and conversations to consolidate relationships across the region and get a sense of policy directions on regional issues ranging from the South China/West Philippine Sea, to climate change, human trafficking and the ASEAN common market. The ASEAN principle of non-interference handicaps official conversations between governments, but problematic behavior by states can be addressed a lot more frankly in an unofficial setting.

The most successful homegrown example in the region is probably Indonesia’s mediation to end the Cambodian-Vietnamese war. The agenda wasn’t structured and diplomatic protocol was abandoned so the meeting got compared with a cocktail party and the term “cocktail diplomacy” was coined. The term may sound frivolous but in fact the process that led to the Paris Peace Accords that will see their 30th anniversary in October was enormously complex. Indonesia’s brokering came at the right time in the global context, with the end of the Cold War and China’s opening up, though not before the Great Game being played by big powers had torn Cambodia and Vietnam apart and caused genocide. The peace process was inevitably flawed and, though the United Nations subsequently spent millions of dollars and huge resources in its UNTAC operation, it has ultimately failed in its avowed mission to turn Cambodia into a functioning liberal democracy.

A few days ago Indonesia’s current foreign minister Retno Marsudi took up the challenge of being a good neighbor. She recently held talks with Singapore and Brunei, the current ASEAN chair, and on Wednesday met with her Thai counterpart, Don Pramudwinai, in Bangkok. Unexpectedly, the Burmese junta’s foreign affairs spokesman, Wunna Maung Lwin, also arrived in Bangkok on Wednesday to meet Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. They were reported to be “preparing the ground for a special ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting to be held next week in Jakarta, which will not feature a specific agenda nor issue any outcome document,” according to veteran ASEAN journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn. Could Myanmar/Burma in 2021 provide a new opportunity for Indonesia to provide the means by which the political crisis is resolved?

Protesters who took part in the unprecedentedly massive demonstrations and general strike last Monday were not impressed by the government-to-government negotiations. Civil society has roundly condemned the Indonesian initiative for legitimizing the coup leaders. Where ASEAN represents a community of powerful elites across the region, the protesters have their own community of interests with the Milk Tea Alliance of protesters demanding democracy in Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong. It is a leaderless protest movement calling for change across Southeast Asia. (The milk tea reference is because it started as an anti-Beijing meme – tea is not drunk with milk in China, but is in southeast Asia.)

Outside southeast Asia the US and European governments have won far more favor with ordinary people by declaring unequivocally: “We stand with the Burmese people.”

Some protesters want the coup leaders to back down from governing, release the hundreds of activists and opposition leaders who’ve been arrested since February 1st, a new constitution and “federal democracy,” while others want the government of Aung San Suu Kyi to be released and returned to power. The Indonesian proposal, in consultation with other ASEAN members as it’s been reported, falls far short of their demands. They apparently involve recognition of the coup leaders as the government, insofar as they put the onus on the military to resolve the situation. ASEAN wants the release of opposition leaders and a detailed roadmap to democracy. It asks the junta to stick to guidelines in order for dialogue to continue: “No violence against peaceful protesters, a democratic transition process through dialogue and negotiations, and respect for the ASEAN Charter, which enshrines the principle of ASEAN centrality in regional cooperation and peaceful settlement of disputes through dialogue and cooperation.”

Burma’s crisis is an opportunity for the kind of homegrown diplomacy that Indonesia has accomplished in the past, within the ASEAN framework, but there are many other factors at play that make success even harder than it was in the early 90s. COVID rules out cocktail diplomacy.

This is the social media age and the ASEAN-backed Indonesian proposals have been met with howls of derision. Nevertheless, as the days pass, the possibility increases for the situation to turn violent and out of control.

It’s at that point that Burma’s crisis could go regional. ASEAN might be forced to reprimand a member for the first time in its 54-year history; that would be “an action of last resort” for the grouping, but for the people of Myanmar and the region, just another sign of the ruthless elitism of regional governments. Reprimands, like expressions of concern, look very much like a wink and a nod between brothers in arms when seen from street level, a tacit understanding that consigns our votes to the rubbish heap.

Better make that a milk tea.

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