We marked the one-year anniversary of the start of one of the worst crises in Southeast Asia's recent history on 1 Feb: the military coup in Myanmar. Led by Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the junta government has now spent one year devastating the country, waging a campaign of extreme violence and terror against the population.
The past year has also exposed the limitation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (Asean) ability. Driven by internal divisions, the bloc has failed to take coherent and decisive action in response to Min Aung Hlaing's atrocities. And now Asean faces a seemingly "perfect storm" of challenges to navigate in its efforts to deal with the junta military.
The current Asean Chair, Cambodian PM Hun Sen, has made a series of blunders since assuming the role in January. His ill-advised visit to Nay Pyi Taw -- made without consulting other Asean members -- was predictably exploited by Min Aung Hlaing and resulted in nothing more than a reality-bending joint statement that was simply a PR exercise for the junta. PM Hun Sen was forced to apologise for wrongly announcing that Australian economic adviser Sean Turnell had been released. Mr Turnell remains, after a year, unjustly detained by the junta.
Meanwhile, the UN Secretary General's recently appointed Special Envoy to Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, a critical partner for Asean, has been massively set back in her initial efforts after making an ill-judged proposal for a power sharing with the military as a way forward.
As for Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing himself, he is deluded. He has no authority to control the country. Significant territory is under the control of the allied democratic forces -- the National Unity Government (NUG), ethnic administrations and protest groups. Yet, he is digging in his heels, and intensifying his violence.
But there is still hope. The Asean Foreign Ministers are meeting for a two-day conference in Phnom Penh starting tomorrow (Feb 16-17). They must seize the moment and return Asean to the more principled course it had begun to take before the New Year.
In October, Asean took the unprec- edented step of barring Min Aung Hlaing and reducing Myanmar to non-political representation at the annual Asean Summit. There can be no more fatal blow to a would-be regime than being diminished to non-political status. This was an important move by Asean towards waiving the obsolete principle of non-interference, which has long rendered itself impotent in the face of the Myanmar military's brutality. Asean's act of effectively rendering the junta government delegitimated in the eye of its people, has helped to energise the democracy movement.
This week's meeting of Asean Foreign Ministers is an opportunity to get this back on track. The fact that the junta will once again not be welcome at the meeting is a sign that there is still some moral clarity left within the bloc.
Asean must now recognise that Myanmar is going through a historic process of re-modelling itself as a federal democratic nation, free from the military's violence and oppression. History shows us that once a country starts on this path, nothing can stop it. In the short term, however, the people of Myanmar need international support to get there -- not least from their own neighbours.
The Foreign Ministers need to take immediate and united action. They must resolve for Asean and the Asean Special Envoy to engage meaningfully and publicly with the National Unity Government (NUG) and other democratic actors as the real representatives of the people of Myanmar -- this is not least crucial when it comes to the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid, which should be channelled across borders, directly to the people and not through the Myanmar military.
Critically, Asean must not be duped by token gestures from Min Aung Hlaing or allow him leeway to dictate the terms of any eventual dialogue process. Nothing short of a genuine political transformation in line with the principles of the Federal Democratic Charter announced by the people's elected representatives in March last year can resolve this crisis and end Asean's decades-long Myanmar headache.
The people of Myanmar have bravely -- and successfully -- withstood the coup over the past year, at a heavy cost. Now Asean must show it is on the right side of history by throwing its weight behind democracy.
Marzuki Darusman, is founding member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar. He is also former attorney general of Indonesia and former chair of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.
(courtesy Bangkok post)