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Article Released Thu-4th-October-2007 07:56 GMT
Contact: Mohamad Abdullah Institution: Universiti Sains Malaysia
 ASEAN’s Pivotal Role in Myanmar

When ASEAN took in Myanmar as a partner, Myanmar’s fate becomes ASEAN’s fate. This review outlines ASEAN's decisive role, Buddhism in Myanmar, a previous rebellion led by monks and why Than Shwe and his junta must not be overthrown.

OOI Keat Gin

Buddhist monks holding hostages and then protesting en masse on the streets of Yangon swelling to thousands as other local people joined in was an unprecedented spectacle in recent times that became dubbed as the ‘saffron revolution’. The strong arm tactics by the ruling military junta in crushing dissent was no great surprise; precedents were aplenty, the infamous 1988 crack down is barely forgotten. The number of fatalities, double or three figures and the uncertainty of the numbers that were taken away then and now still remained a mystery.

World leaders and general public opinion had appealed for restrained. Almost a deja vu if one recalled Tiannmen of 1989. The generals of Myanmar, like the Communist Party of China, is not going to be bother with world public opinion or even threats of sanctions. The military leaders in Myanmar are not going to care much whether economic or whatever sanctions are imposed on the country. In fact the more imposition of sanctions the more the ordinary citizen of Myanmar, his wife, children and hand-held baby are going to be the victims and suffer from deprivation.

The ‘Saffron revolution’ appeared to be the last resort against recent developments in Myanmar. Ever since the country embraced Buddhism several centuries ago, the religion is pervasive in practically all aspects of daily life. Respect for the sangha, the Buddhist clergy is unquestionable and a fact of life amongst the devout as well as the sundry. Monks are found in every corner of the country, in cities and in remote villages. The daily scene of people offering food to a line of monks each holding a bowl connects the sangha directly to the man-in-the-street. What a monk utters be it a blessing or advice is well-received by the common men and women. Buddhism preached non-violence. But there were instances when Buddhist monks or pongyis-led revolt against authority; the Saya San rebellion of 1930-1931 was practically organized by the political-minded pongyis. Despite being defeated by the British colonial government, the historian J. F. Cady remarked that this political-religious revolt “undoubtedly constituted an important landmark in the development of Burmese nationalism”.

Therefore with the muffling and incarceration of pro-democracy elements and the perennial house arrest imposed on the impotent Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the sangha appeared to be the only and final hope for turning the country around. Reminiscence of Saya San that gained popular support in the Tharrawaddy district against the background of the World Depression appeared to be resurrected. The current spiraling cost of living that worsened day by day culminating in the increase in fuel prices is but the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s (read people’s) back. Enough is enough and the people hit the streets behind saffron robed monks that represented the moral authority in a society long cowed under repressive rule.

Notwithstanding ASEAN’s unyielding so-called constructive engagement with Myanmar’s military government, it is still not too late for ASEAN to play a decisive role in persuading Than Shwe and his colleagues to resolve the country’s problem at the conference table. But in this role, ASEAN must play a covert, behind-the-scene role to broker a ‘ceasefire’ between the opposing factions. A compromise solution needs to be decided and agreed upon by all concern.

The crux to the solution is this important point. For public consumption the solution or a compromise deal has to be seen to be from the military junta; it is imperative that all appearances to show that it is they who initiate and resolve the situation. ASEAN’s role has to be in the background. The military junta needs to ‘save face’, and must not publicly be seen as backing down or compromising. Opposition groups need to give the generals a ‘face-saving’ way to pull out of the present debacle for the sake of the country’s future. If the latter is steadfast in not wanting to allow the facade that the solution / compromise deal emanates from the military junta, then sadly the country is heading towards chaos and even all-out civil war.

Ironically Than Shwe and his junta must not be overthrown. If the central authority in Myanmar collapses, the country will descend into anarchy. It took several decades for the Myanmar government to resolve the ethnic strife amongst the country’s minorities – Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin, and others. If the government falls, the entire country will convalesce into flames of chaos. The situation will not be unlike W. B. Keats’

When things fall apart, the centre can not hold;
Mere anarchy be lost upon the world

A UN special envoy, a Nigerian named Ibrahim Gambari was in Myanmar to help resolve the situation. He, alas, would join the club of ‘special envoys’ that returned empty-handed.

When ASEAN took in Myanmar as a partner, Myanmar’s fate becomes ASEAN’s fate. The onus, therefore, is on ASEAN to bring about a resolution to Myanmar’s present situation. Southeast Asians should resolve Southeast Asian problems and not allow others from outside the region to take the opportunity and advantage to impose their agenda or achieve their ulterior motives. Lessons from Viet Nam (1950s-1970s) remained vivid.


OOI Keat Gin is associate professor in the School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia, coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Research Unit (APRU), and editor of the International Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies (IJAPS).

(Contact details of Associate Professor Ooi is available to registered journalists from the link below)

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Keywords associated to this article: Myanmar, ASEAN, Buddhism
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