Global Pairings

Myanmar and Ethiopia: Drawing Parallels

Are regional organizations, ASEAN and the AU, taking adequate responsibility to resolve conflicts?

Takeaways


  • In 2021, two major regional organizations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the African Union grappled with major political and humanitarian crises in Myanmar and Ethiopia respectively.
  • In Ethiopia, 500,000 people are in dire need humanitarian assistance. More than two million are internally displaced.
  • In Myanmar, some 219,000 people have been displaced. The ruling junta’s security forces have killed more than 1,000 civilian protestors since they came to power.
  • It is imperative for the efforts of ASEAN in Myanmar and the AU in Ethiopia to succeed, lest foreign intervention from countries like China further vex the situation.
  • The world will be a better place if regional organizations take effective measures to deal with any problems that arise within their member states. It will keep outside powers away from fishing in troubled waters.

Last year, two major regional organizations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the African Union (AU) grappled with major political and humanitarian crises among their member states.

A military coup and a civil war

In the case of ASEAN, the spotlight was on Myanmar, where a coup in February 2021 reestablished full military rule. In the case of the AU, the spotlight was on Ethiopia.

That East African country of 115 million people which has been embroiled in a civil war in the northern region of Tigray since November 2020.

In both instances, the United Nations Security Council maintained that the regional organizations concerned should be the ones to take the requisite action.

ASEAN and AU: Key differences

ASEAN and the AU may both be regional organizations, but they are different in several ways.

Not every country in the southeast Asian region is a member of ASEAN. In contrast, every African country including the Sahrawi Arab Republic, are members of the AU.

Role of the secretariat

Another critical difference is that ASEAN is normally led by a country that serves as its Chair for the year. In 2021, that was Brunei. The perceptions of the chair country tend to have a significant impact on how ASEAN deals with issues under its remit.

The AU also has a regionally rotating annual presidency. However, unlike ASEAN, the AU works more through its secretariat, the AU Commission.

The President of the AU Commission, currently the former Prime minister from Chad, Moussa Faki Mahamat, is more empowered than his/her respective counterpart in ASEAN, the ASEAN Secretary General.

Delays

The suppression of democracy in Myanmar led to widespread consternation within ASEAN. Yet, it took several months for the group to take a firm position on the matter.

At the Jakarta leaders meeting in April 2021, ASEAN announced a five-point consensus to end violence in Myanmar and to allow for humanitarian assistance.

Special envoy

The grouping appointed a special envoy to oversee the process. However, amid deep divisions within ASEAN, the naming of the envoy was delayed for months.

Even after Brunei’s second minister for foreign affairs, Erywan Yusof, was finally appointed to the post in August, the envoy was prevented by Myanmar’s military government for functioning effectively.

This led to the unprecedented stiff action of ASEAN suspending Myanmar from its summits.

Cambodia to the fore

In 2022, the ASEAN chair has rotated to Cambodia, which has decided to engage Myanmar once again.

President Hun Sen visited Myanmar in January to nudge the regime into action. He has appointed his Foreign Minister as the new special envoy.

Addis Ababa vs. Tigray

In comparison, the situation in Ethiopia is different. There, both the rebel province of Tigray and the government claim democratic legitimacy. Neither side has staged a military coup.

When Tigray challenged the new political power configuration in the capital, Addis Ababa, the government struck back against it with “a law enforcement operation”.

In effect, Ethiopia had been in the midst of a civil war for over a year. Initially, the government troops enjoyed some successes, but later these were reversed. Currently, there is an impasse.

Humanitarian crises

However, the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia is mounting, as it is in Myanmar.

In Ethiopia, 500,000 people are in dire need humanitarian assistance. More than two million are internally displaced.

In Myanmar, some 219,000 people have been displaced. The junta’s security forces have killed more than 1,000 civilian protestors since the coup took place.

Weaponizing aid

In Ethiopia, the issue of humanitarian assistance is being weaponized by both sides. Tigray says that its people are being starved and denied medical assistance.

The government in Addis claims that the rebels in Tigray are using humanitarian aid for their own sustenance.

Measuring success

How successfully have ASEAN and the AU stepped up to help diffuse the situations?

In the case of Myanmar, ASEAN has evolved a policy which is more robust than any it has devised in the past. While it may not have succeeded yet, ASEAN is abiding by its Charter. The special envoy was a good initiative, even if it had limited results.

The AU, on the other hand, is known to be especially wary of acting against its host country, Ethiopia. Consequently, the Tigray leadership is skeptical of the organization and suspects it of having a bias in favor of the Ethiopian government’s position.

Role of Obasanjo

However, the AU has appointed former Nigerian President Obasanjo as the High Representative to deal with the problem in Ethiopia as well as other emergent issues in Somalia and Sudan.

Obasanjo has been quietly working to improve matters. In November, he finally met the Ethiopian and Tigray leaderships to try and find common ground between them.

African solutions for African problems

Other non-African countries who appointed their own special envoys for the situation in Ethiopia are now leaning towards allowing Obasanjo to stay in the lead.

The preference is for “African solutions for African problems” to remain the norm.

Chinese interference

It is imperative for the efforts of ASEAN and the AU to succeed, lest foreign intervention from countries like China further vex the situation.

In Myanmar, this is already happening. Cambodia is ignoring democratic groups and reaching out to the junta. This is a move that seems to have Chinese support. China has also now appointed a Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, which includes Ethiopia.

Conclusion

The world will be a better place if regional organisations like the ASEAN and the AU take effective measures to deal with any problems that arise within their member states.

The efficacy will build their reputation will be enhanced and it will keep outside powers away from fishing in troubled waters.

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About Gurjit Singh

Gurjit Singh is former ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia ASEAN and the African Union Chair, CII Task Force on Trilateral Cooperation in Africa.

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