Opinion & Analysis

Shangri-La Dialogue: Myanmar '24

The social and political development of Myanmar has long been a topic of discussion at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

In 2018, as the fledgling government of Aung San Suu Kyi was being formed in Naypidaw, the Dialogue turned its eye to the concerning situation in the west coast state of Rakhine, where the Muslim Rohingya minority was beginning to feel the boot heel of the Tatmadaw, amid a rising climate of intolerance.

In the end, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were driven out of Myanmar altogether and remain in camps in the south of Bangladesh.

The military coup of February 2021 changed the Myanmar landscape profoundly, and more than three years later, the Dialogue again turned its attention to the possible futures facing the country.

Last week the Special Advisory Council on Myanmar – or SAC-M – released its latest report into the civil conflict, and it shows that for the junta the situation is becoming increasingly difficult.

In brief the report finds:

  • The junta has lost control of around 86% of the country, and 67% of the population.
  • The resistance movement continues to gain control of new, mostly rural
  • Humanitarian needs are greatest in areas outside junta control.
  • The UN Security Council should impose an arms embargo, and financial sanctions, and place the current situation before the International Court of Justice for crimes committed by the junta.

The subject of Myanmar was once again high on the agenda at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, and for obvious reasons.

Experts on this year’s panel included Aaron Connelly, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asian Politics and Foreign Policy at the IISS, along with diplomats Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Minister of State for Indo-Pacific at the UK Foreign Office, Dato’ Raja Nushirwan bin Zainal Abidin, the Director General of Malaysia’s National Security Council, Igor Driesmans, the EU’s Special Envoy for Myanmar, and Ngurah Swajaya, Indonesia’s Special Envoy to Myanmar.

This panel of diplomats was asked to engage on the “how” of diplomacy with Myanmar’s junta generals: How to get the fighting to stop, and how to get the country moving towards a working democracy, and how to get the military out of politics.

As Ngurah Swajaya so rightly pointed out, Myanmar is become a “forgotten” war, pushed off the  the world news pages by Ukraine and Gaza.

Raja Nushirwan began the conversation by identifying the current situation as similar to Syria during its protracted civil war – the junta controls the capital and a few garrison towns, and the “rebels” control the rest. With around 200 thousand refugees from Myanmar currently in Malaysia, he warned that public tolerance there was wearing thin.

From the EU perspective, Igor Driesmans called on ASEAN to continue its diplomacy with the junta and find the space for member nations to iron out differences on how to proceed with the Myanmar issue. He also reiterated the point that Myanmar’s future is to a large extent in the hands of its people, and also mentioned the development of local areas of control under the opposition  NUG (National Unity Government), which has begun to organise basic social services in some areas, in the vacuum left by the retreating junta forces.

“We see local initiatives towards state-building, and ethnically inclusive federalism, and that does deserve our support,” he said.

Laei village hospital in Shan State after an air strike that killed two people in March 2024.// Image: Karenni Human Rights

Indonesia’s Envoy Ngurah Swajaya has a long history with Myanmar, reminding the audience that ASEAN had been dealing with a military junta in Myanmar for 30-odd years before the slight move towards democracy in 2011. This led to Myanmar becoming chair of ASEAN in 2014.

“The way that we engaged with the junta then – they said they had a roadmap to democracy and we said we wanted to engage on that. Since the junta again happened in 2021, we go back to square one.”

Swajaya says current diplomacy and dialogue with parties inside Myanmar is difficult, as many are unavailable in person.

“What we get from the various parties inside Myanmar is that they believe in dialogue as a solution, there will be no military solution.”

“ASEAN involvement without the participation of all stakeholders [means] it is not possible to resolve [the conflict]."

“There is momentum to push for inclusive dialogue, and we should be proactive, we cannot wait.”

It was a theme returned to again and again – coordination between international community agencies, the central role of ASEAN, and the essential buy-in needed from all parties inside Myanmar.

But as Malaysian diplomat Nushirwan noted, “We have to be clear what we mean when we say coordination, because certainly we don’t mean a uniformity of approach. The first thing we need to do is map out what is on the table.”

Inside Myanmar, Ngurah Swajaya confirmed that the various anti-junta groups had begun to talk to each other, but he said that presented a new issue when it came to the international community.

“To find a unifying figure that can talk with all those stakeholders is very crucial. The NUG can’t do that yet,” he said, “They are all happy to engage with us, but there should be a figure from within Myanmar who can bridge their differences.”

The latest SAC-M report recommends ASEAN accept Myanmar’s NUG (National Unity Government ) as the voice of the country in ASEAN forums, but while none of the panellists went quite that far there was a strong support for continued diplomacy with as many groups as possible both inside and outside the country.

Anne-Marie Trevelyn made the point that having structures in place when Myanmar’s political situation eventually changes will pay dividends. “That quiet, consistent diplomacy is critical to taking a crystalising moment when it might come, when a particular military success proves the opportunity to move forward,” she said.

“We have to all be aware and awake to that moment where a mutual unhappiness with the situation becomes a window of opportunity.”

“It might be the UN envoy, it might be a random politician, that point where we can all see that moment, we must keep our eyes open for. I think that’s really important.”

As the recent SAC-M Myanmar report puts it: “ The swiftest and surest route to peace and stability in Myanmar is through realisation of the Myanmar peoples’ aspirations for federal democracy.”

While it’s obvious ASEAN, and the EU are thinking the same thing, the lack of a coherent and popular political entity inside the country is to an extent slowing progress. The official recognition of the NUG as Myanmar’s representative in an international sense could be the moment many have been waiting for in moving the political process on.

Banner Image: Soldiers from the NUG’s PDF pose for a photo during an inspection by the NUG’s Minister of Defence somewhere in the south of Myanmar on 18 May 2024. (NUG Ministry of Defence)

- Asia Media Centre