Does the Association of Southeast Asian Nations want to sustain its relevance and be a credible player in international politics? Does it want to develop the ability to respond to potential challenges faced individually or collectively by its members?
If so, Asean should consider creating a regional standby force.
The force would operate with two purposes _ peacekeeping and serving as a collective defence against extra-regional threats.
An Asean peacekeeping force would have been invaluable last year at the height of the Thai-Cambodian spat, patrolling the contested border area as part of a conflict resolution mechanism. While those tensions are currently eased, the source of the conflict endures and could flare up any time. Asean should prepare for next time.
A credible multinational standby force could also demonstrate Asean’s determination to come together in the face of outside threats in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
Reports from Myanmar of chronic skirmishes with gross human rights abuses committed by government soldiers against ethnic minorities again raise the question of whether the region could benefit from a Southeast Asian version of Nato or a miniaturised and regional model of a United Nations peacekeeping operation.
Myanmar has embarked on a path of political reform. The ban on the National League for Democracy was lifted, allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to run in by-elections this month. Media censorship has been loosened while labour unions and strikes are being legalised. The government has declared war on opium production and is welcoming Asean observers to monitor the by-elections.
But ethnic conflict continues to be a serious problem as the country seeks international acceptance. An open letter to Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan from civil society organisations notes “with concern that… the Myanmar army continues to perpetrate gross human rights abuses against ethnic civilians”.
These civil society groups also claim violence and rights violations continue to occur even in areas where ceasefires are in place.
The Myanmar government should invite regional troops to be stationed in conflict areas while it works to settle the disputes politically and permanently. This is a win-win arrangement for both Myanmar and Asean in the short term, with significant positive implications in the long run.
Asking for a regional peacekeeping force _ comprised of troops from 10 regional member states, or at least from willing nations _ will testify to Myanmar’s commitment to Asean and its principles. It will contribute to Mrs Suu Kyi’s “simple ambition” of making Myanmar, which will take on the role of Asean chair in 2014, a leading player in the group within 10 years.
Such an invitation from the Myanmar government should not be considered interference in domestic affairs, but a regional collaboration to push for further progress in Myanmar. The force should include Myanmar soldiers or have a Myanmar commander to allay perceptions of interference.
Deployment of the peacekeeping force should create a pause in the long-running conflicts between authorities and minority groups. But it is not a substitute for a genuine peace among all stakeholders.
While the troops are deployed, the Myanmar government will need to strive for a permanent solution to the disputes. It will need to create room for all sides to breathe and talk sensibly. Min Ko Niang, a political prisoner who was recently released, explained that “We need peace across the country immediately. Then we can work toward building national reconciliation.”
Internationally, welcoming an Asean peacekeeping force will allow Myanmar to demonstrate its commitment to ending human rights abuses and improving its treatment of ethnic minorities. The United States and the European Union have highlighted resolution of this issue as one of the main conditions for the lifting of sanctions.
The conflict between the government and ethnic minorities is a difficult one to solve because the army is not the only perpetrator. Armed ethnic groups are also guilty of abuse.
When a ceasefire is reached, both sides must adhere to it. As such, there is room for a third party to help, if invited, while a creative solution is discussed.
When bloodshed and human rights abuses are halted, the international community will be forced to reevaluate its position on sanctions. The Myanmar government will be armed with a new diplomatic tool to bargain against sanctions. The peacekeeping force will act both as an enforcer of ceasefire agreements and an international guarantor of security in skirmish-prone zones.
The Myanmar government needs to decide whether it truly values the notion of ending human rights abuses and violence by both parties. It also needs to assess how important getting sanctions lifted is and how seriously it takes Mrs Suu Kyi’s “simple ambition” for Myanmar in Asean.
Meanwhile, Asean needs to decide whether it wants to take a more proactive role in its own security affairs and to establish itself as a credible bloc with serious weight in discussions related to the increasingly contested Asia-Pacific security arena.
If the answers to these questions are positive, then Asean needs to get serious about establishing a peacekeeping and rapid response force, and the Myanmar government needs to not only support it but also indicate willingness to invite such a force to help maintain security while long-term solutions for the country are being worked out.