WASHINGTON – Myanmar’s internal conflict and its spillover effects, triggered by the military’s coup d’etat just over two years ago, will be a particular focus in an upcoming trip to Asean this week by top US State Department official Derek Chollet.
The March 20-24 trip to Indonesia and Thailand will be the latest in a series of high-level visits by American officials to the region, especially to Jakarta, as Indonesia nears the fourth month of its year as chair of Asean.
Most recently, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink visited Jakarta from March 8 to 9.
In an interview, Mr Chollet, Counsellor of the State Department, told The Straits Times he would engage with Indonesia on all Asean matters, and in particular on the situation in Myanmar.
The United Nations has estimated that 17.6 million people in Myanmar are in need of humanitarian assistance, more than 1.6 million are internally displaced, and about 55,000 civilian buildings have been destroyed since the coup on Feb 21, 2021. Well over 2,000 civilians have been killed, and there are an estimated 16,000 political prisoners.
The State Department, announcing Mr Chollet’s trip on Sunday morning in Washington, said he would “highlight the United States’ commitment to Asean centrality, a free and open Indo-Pacific, and support for the security and prosperity of our partners”.
In Bangkok, Mr Chollet will meet senior Thai officials to underscore the US’ commitment to the US-Thailand alliance, and discuss strengthening bilateral cooperation on a range of issues, including expanding health and climate cooperation, and strengthening cooperation to address the Myanmar situation, the department said.
Asked to elaborate on Myanmar, Mr Chollet said: “There is no light at the end of the tunnel that I see. Things only seem to get worse there.
“I think what we are seeing is the junta running out of capability in certain ways and that its ground forces are being fairly effectively checked by the opposition. Therefore, it’s resorting to air power – and pretty much the indiscriminate use of air power in which a lot of civilians are suffering.
“So unfortunately the news is only getting worse inside Myanmar, which I think increases the urgency that we feel to try to get something done. And our lines of effort that the United States has pursued with our partners over the last several years remain, which is continuing to try to punish and isolate and pressure the junta.”
Mr Chollet called the situation the greatest challenge Asean has faced in some time. “It’s a crisis that can, I think, stand in the way of some of what Asean wants to try to achieve,” he said.
“And Asean knows that more than we do. But that’s why we (have) such a keen interest in trying to do our part, working with Asean to try to mitigate the negative impacts... but then also trying to do what we can to try and resolve it, as difficult as that will be.”
There is also appreciation for how the regional bloc has handled it thus far, Mr Chollet said.
Indonesia has taken some important steps, he said, citing the establishment in January of a new special envoy’s office to coordinate Asean policy on Myanmar, working under Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.
The office would put more pressure on the military junta to implement the bloc’s five-point consensus peace plan, Ms Retno has said.
“I think it is to Asean’s great credit… that it has maintained such unity on significant issues like the five-point consensus, like the decision to deny Myanmar political representation at key meetings,” Mr Chollet said the US is “fully supportive” of the five-point consensus.
“That’s not an easy decision for a group like Asean to take in a consensus-based organisation. And so we recognise the significance of that and applaud it. And that’s why we’ve been doing our part to just show our support for that.”
Mr Chollet noted there were different views within Asean. “But what I’ve been impressed by… is there is a core of Asean countries, significant countries, that… are very closely aligned in terms of our views on this crisis. And we’re working with all Asean countries, but particularly that core, to coordinate our efforts.”
The five points agreed by Asean in 2021 include a call for an immediate cessation of violence and inclusive political dialogue involving all parties.
“What happens in Myanmar doesn’t stay in Myanmar,” Mr Chollet said. “Of course, we would be worried about any potential spillover of the conflict. And all the countries that border Myanmar, whether it’s Bangladesh and India or China and Thailand, are all focused on the security of their borders and ensuring that the actual fighting does not metastasise beyond their borders.”
He added: “We see the level of criminality and corruption that is growing inside Myanmar as order breaks down there, as something that can only further complicate things in the region.”
“We have concern about internally displaced (people) within Myanmar, but also refugee flows outside of Myanmar. I was recently in Bangladesh on the other side of the problem where there are over a million refugees in Cox’s Bazar right now, the largest concentration of refugees on the planet.”
Periodic pogroms by the Myanmar military against the Muslim Rohingya, the last one in 2017, have driven waves of Rohingya – who the Myanmar military consider illegal Bengali settlers – across the border into Bangladesh, where they are currently spread across refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar district.
“The last thing South-east Asia needs is a failed state in its heart, which is what Myanmar is heading towards,” Mr Chollet said. “Which is why we, the United States, are trying to do our part through our partners and allies in the region to try to stabilise the situation and put it back on the path to democracy.
“I think on the good news side of the ledger, what we’re seeing is incredible resilience and spirit of the people of Myanmar. There’s a reason why the junta is losing, and the principal reason for that is... the strength and the vibrancy of the pro-democratic opposition there.”
The junta controls only 50 per cent of the country, he said.
“We just need to continue to build on that... for the people of Myanmar as best we can, and try to provide greater support to the pro-democratic opposition.”