According to Burmese mythology, there was once a bet between two friendly deities: Sakra, king of the devas, and Arsi, king of the brahmas. Sakra won and Arsi decapitated himself as previously agreed. Sakra didn’t want the head, but couldn’t dispose of it either. If the head went into the water, all the seas would evaporate. And if it fell to the ground, the earth would burn. Sakra thus represented seven angels, each holding the problematic trophy for a year and then passing it on to the next. The Burmese metaphor of ‘Brahma head’ (Bhyamah oo-gaung) derives from this myth and is used to indicate a problem that no one wants but one must hold on to.
After the coup, Myanmar has become something of a “Brahma head” for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Member States poke around for a year during their respective presidencies, hoping for progress on the Five Point Consensus (5PC) peace plan, inevitably shrugging their shoulders in dismay and then passing on the burden. Brunei did so in 2021, as did Cambodia this year. Soon it will be Indonesia’s turn in 2023. The major powers have stayed out of the morass and redirected the headache back to ASEAN, emphasizing their central role and responsibility in dealing with the group’s perennial black sheep.
Despite all its efforts, ASEAN can point to few concrete achievements. When originally announced in April 2021, the 5PC raised premature hopes that Myanmar’s chaotic descent into the conflict could be reversed. Almost immediately, however, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing withdrew his commitments and redoubled the violent elimination of his opponents. Later, the appointment of veteran Singaporean diplomat Noeleen Heyzer as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Myanmar fueled cautious optimism that ASEAN, in coordination with the envoy, could achieve some sort of breakthrough. The visit of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to Myanmar in January this year also led to talks about possible postponements. To date, those efforts have met with cold snubs, heated criticism, and despair.
Given Indonesia’s status as ASEAN’s “older brother”, its own Reformasi journey away from military dictatorship, decades of anger over the Rohingyas’ plight, and President Joko Widodo’s efforts to shape his political legacy, it is certain that Indonesia is on Gaining momentum will increase censure and pressure on the junta in 2023. Indonesia has already proposed extending the ban on junta officials beyond ASEAN summits. Activists are now urging Indonesia to recognize the parallel Government of National Unity (NUG), hoping international recognition will pave the way for significant military aid. The shift in language in ASEAN leaders’ recent review and decision on the 5PC indicates that ASEAN is taking a more flexible approach and is relatively hardened on the junta.
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However, it remains to be seen how effective a more overt approach will be in actually stopping the bloodshed. Despite the steady stream of scholars and reports saying the junta is on the verge of collapse, Myanmar’s civil war currently has no anticipated end.
At this point, both the State Administration Council (SAC) junta and the NUG still believe they can defeat the other militarily. Buoyed by their respective echo chambers, both camps claim they are “winning”. Even as civilian casualties mount and people face increasing pressure from all sides, public statements from both camps show little sign of fatigue or reappraisal.
Within the Tatmadaw, there is unease not over the brutality, but over Min Aung Hlaing’s perceived softness and indecisiveness in crushing the resistance. Enraged by the ongoing atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw, the resistance insists on an all-out people’s war to not only overthrow the junta but also to eradicate the military completely from Myanmar’s political life. Up to 28,000 people have now died, over 1 million have been displaced and 15 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.
It will be anathema to the resistance and its supporters, but ASEAN member-state governments are likely to believe the junta still has the upper hand and will therefore hedge their options accordingly. They will also consider that a misinterpretation of the tea leaves could exclude ASEAN from any limited role it can play. Worse, it could unwittingly pave the way for China to further undermine ASEAN unity amid rising geopolitical tensions. ASEAN’s threats to recognize the NUG reflect their need to pressure the SAC to honor their commitments rather than outright condemnation.
ASEAN’s hands are also tied when dealing with the two camps. The group sees engagement as a means of de-escalation, while the two camps see recognition as a head start that will help them win the conflict. ASEAN has tried to treat the SAC like an adult, but it has proven to be of no use. But for all the claims and counterclaims, the hard-line junta remains highly capable of inflicting significant pain and suffering on resistance forces who remain uncoordinated and underarmed. And anything but direct military involvement is unlikely to change the calculus in the near future.
The SAC has embraced a bunker mentality and threats of isolation will not compel them to back down. Isolationism was the norm under which senior military officials grew up during the dictatorship of General Ne Win, who declined to join ASEAN in 1967. The threat of expulsion from ASEAN could backfire and the junta could happily exit, leaving ASEAN without any influence. The regular slamming of statements shows that the junta wants legitimacy from ASEAN, but this will always be secondary to securing its control of the country.
On the Resistance side, things are more chaotic. The NUG performs a delicate balancing act that demands and demands recognition greeting developments while expressing disappointment at ASEAN’s inaction. It must also balance the push for international pressure against minimizing the socio-economic impact of such measures on the population. In addition, it must drown out a cacophony of more militant voices and controversial influencers who profess an affiliation but adopt a hawkish rhetoric that limits the NUG’s scope for action.
With the situation escalating into a shooting war that the NUG itself claims and is talking about intensifying, explicit recognition for foreign governments and factions is now less easy than it otherwise would have been. There is also an ingrained lack of trust in ASEAN, as activists have long accused the group of shielding the abuses of the military and member states of profiting from Myanmar’s misfortunes. Even the current statements are seen as self-serving efforts to salvage ASEAN’s image rather than gestures of genuine solidarity.
However, ASEAN remains the only viable platform with which the warring factions can engage. There’s no point in speaking to just one side of a spreading civil war – whether it’s the junta or the resistance. And the primary focus of any interaction with both sides should be to de-escalate violence and facilitate humanitarian assistance. ASEAN’s options should not be caught in a false dichotomy of only recognizing and speaking to one side. Establishing a dedicated ASEAN envoy, separate from the current annual rotation, would help achieve something more concrete. And even then, it will be a thankless job.
With all the doom and gloom of holding the ‘Brahma head’, there is also hopeful symbolism associated with it. The change of ownership from one carrier to the next is said to mark Thingyan, the traditional Burmese New Year in which past failures are left behind for a new beginning. And Sakra, unable to bear to see his headless friend, placed the head of a passing elephant on Arsi’s body, creating Maha Peinne, the Burmese version of Ganesha – the Hindu god believed to be the remover of obstacles. Perhaps Indonesia, while bearing this burden in the coming year, could give that ‘Brahma head’ a good shake and give some impetus back to the 5PC process.