After Myanmar's military regime marked National Armed Forces' Day on Saturday by committing their greatest massacre of protesters so far – killing 114 men, women and children – the coup-installed government of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing received another round of international condemnation.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was "horrified" and denounced "the military's reign of terror". The UN special rapporteur Tom Andrews said the junta was committing "mass murder" – and this just after the defence chiefs of 12 countries, mainly western, but including South Korea and Japan, had published a statement condemning "the use of lethal force against unarmed people by the Myanmar armed forces and associated security services".
The sentiment that “something must be done” to end the violence and restore parliamentary democracy is understandably urgent. But what and by whom? The precedents are not encouraging. As Aung Zaw, editor-in-chief of the respected Irrawaddy news group, once wrote: “When the Burmese regime decides to act, it moves quickly, crushing its opponents without hesitation or regard for public or international opinion.”
In 2009, shortly before the country’s hybrid democracy – in which considerable powers were reserved by the military – was launched – Aung Zaw published an essay which noted that at that point neither sanctions, “constructive engagement”, nor mass popular uprisings had “succeeded in forcing the generals to weaken their stranglehold” on the country that they had ruled since 1962.
This time is different, though. While the half million strong Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are known, may remain largely cohesive, conditioned by their positions as the "guardians" of Myanmar and as a privileged state-within-a-state, the citizenry are proving hard to cow. Maung Zarni, the Burmese co-founder of Forces of Renewal South-East Asia, a cross-border network of pro-democracy scholars and activists, points out that the "hundreds of thousands of civil servants engaged in the Civil Disobedience Movement" who have not returned to work since the coup of February 1, have "deprived" the military "of a functioning state".
Moreover the generals’ seizure of power, Dr Zarni tells me, has “radicalised the entire generation of about 15-20 million youth, some of whom are now undergoing training in urban guerrilla warfare with ethnic armed groups”. The latter, drawn from the numerous ethnic groups that do not belong to the majority Bamar, have been battling the central state since independence. Many are now offering shelter in their borderland strongholds to the National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers turfed out by the coup, who are operating as an alternative government known as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw.
With an unrepentant military, a defiant population, and a nascent alliance between the ousted NLD government and the ethnic armies, the stage is set for a devastating civil war. Dr Zarni and the Indonesian analyst Evan Laksmana both warn of a Syria-like scenario in South-East Asia's neighbourhood. And that is why inaction is not an option for Asean, the Association of South-East Asian Nations to which Myanmar and all the region's states, bar Timor-Leste, belong.
As someone who has been writing about the plight of the Rohingya for the best part of 10 years, it galls me that the mass ethnic cleansing and atrocities they have suffered in Myanmar prompted little action in real terms, while the murder of a far smaller number now seems likely to spur more decisive measures.
But the reality is that nothing compelled Asean to act then. It was even controversial when in 2017 Malaysia’s then prime minister, Najib Razak, called on the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to end the Rohingya’s “humanitarian tragedy” – he was accused of violating the Asean principle of non-interference in each others’ internal affairs.
A civil war in Myanmar, however, would threaten the image of Asean as "a progressive, dynamic and integrated community, at the centre of wider regional mechanisms and architectures", ranging from the East Asia Summit to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership mega-trade agreement, as Thomas Daniel, my former colleague at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, puts it.
Beyond the damage to Asean as an institution, the wave of refugees and the economic catastrophe that civil war would cause would seriously affect India, China, Japan – a huge investor in Myanmar – and others, too.
Asean, though, is divided. Indonesia and Malaysia have called for an urgent summit to address this issue, but some others prefer the path of quiet dialogue. Then there is the question of leverage; and it is not clear that any Asean member state, with the possible exception of Thailand, which doesn't want to force the issue, has sufficient influence to push the junta to do anything.
As Asean's giant by population, Indonesia can – and is – taking the lead in trying to engage China, Japan, Russia, India and the US. A recent analysis in the Foreign Policy magazine argued that Japan and India, which both have strong ties to the Tatmadaw as well as major economic interests in Myanmar, could play very useful roles. If they "use the full extent of their influence, they can end the impasse in Myanmar sooner than expect", was the authors' conclusion.
That sounds too optimistic for Dr Zarni, a long-time activist whose independence is attested to by the fact that his commentary has been attacked by both the Tatmadaw and allies of Aung San Suu Kyi, the deposed civilian leader, over the years. "Backdoor diplomacy" won't work, he says, with what he labels an "intransigent terroristic regime". He calls for a summit of the 12 defence chiefs who issued the statement, along with those from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
This alliance of concerned states, including Asean countries, should explore all possible options for ending the killings, he tells me. This, “more than any sanctions by the West or statements from the UN ought to drive the fear of God into the coup regime”, he says. “You cannot mediate in this essentially zero-sum war. But you have to help empower 54 million people vis-a-vis 400,000 terroristic men.”
All avenues should be explored, and I would place greater hopes on dialogue than Dr Zarni does. But this is a case when “something” really “must be done”. Asean and the wider region have to act with as much co-ordination as they can muster. They cannot allow Myanmar to descend into a Syria-type quagmire without having taken all steps possible to save the country from that hell.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National