The Myanmar junta’s announcement that it is releasing several high-profile prisoners including a former UK ambassador and an Australian economist, is an attempt to stave off pressure from ASEAN as the military looks to win legitimacy for national elections slated for next year.
On Thursday, the junta, formally called the State Administrative Council, said it was releasing Australian Sean Turnell, Briton Vicky Bowman, Japanese journalist Toru Kubota, U.S.-Burmese national Kyaw Htay Oo and several senior opposition figures. It was part of a prisoner amnesty of 5,774 prisoners, including 712 political prisoners, to mark a national holiday.
Turnell, an academic, was a close economic advisor to deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now in prison herself – convicted and sentenced on multiple charges for a total of 26 years. Turnell was arrested days after the 1 Feb. 2021 coup, and sentenced to three years. Former ambassador Bowman, who ran an NGO which advocated corporate responsibility, was arrested with her husband Htein Lin, in September 2022. They were each sentenced to one year each on immigration charges. Lin was also released. Toru Kubota was arrested in July 2022 and sentenced to seven years.
The trumped-up charges against Bowman, Turnell, and Kubota indicate that they were effectively used as hostages to prevent their respective governments from endorsing tougher economic sanctions against the junta.
The releases came just days after Indonesian President Joko Widodo assumed the rotating presidency of ASEAN. His predecessor as ASEAN chair, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, had largely advocated an engagement policy with the junta, though he was pressured by ASEAN members to disinvite their political leadership to the summits.
In reality, Cambodia’s “leadership” was a gift to the junta. But a sympathetic chair is no longer a given.
Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, announced his dissatisfaction with the grouping’s failure to get the junta to abide by the terms of the Five Point Consensus, reached between the junta and ASEAN in April 2021. It was intended to foster a political settlement and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.
A Nov. 13 statement from ASEAN after its leaders met for a summit in Cambodia, called for “concrete, practical and measurable indicators” of progress in implementing the consensus, and the junta has reason to believe that Indonesia will be more forceful in its approach. Jokowi stated that “Indonesia is deeply disappointed the situation in Myanmar is worsening,” and worried that the organization’s dithering was “defining” the Southeast Asian bloc.
While one might be skeptical that Indonesia may take a substantially harder line on the junta, would the generals in Naypyidaw be willing to take the risk? Foreign policy has never been a high priority for the Indonesian president, but having successfully hosted what could have been a very contentious G-20 summit and now assuming the presidency of ASEAN, Jokowi may be looking towards his legacy. His time in office will end in 2024.
But it was more than the ASEAN meeting that accounts for the timing.
On Nov. 14, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah announced that said that Malaysia would not support the junta’s planned elections in 2023, as it would be “biased” and rejected by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy, which won overwhelmingly in the November 2020 polls, the shadow National Unity Government or other stakeholders.
“The pro-democracy group that won the previous election won big but before they could convene Parliament, the junta took over power,” Saifuddin said. “Therefore, it is completely illogical for Malaysia and ASEAN to support the election.”
The junta has every reason to fear that Indonesia may follow suit, paving the way for other ASEAN states, such as the Philippines and Singapore, to share that position.
The proposed election in Myanmar in 2023 will be shambolic, for a host of reasons. The junta has established a proportional representation system it believes that will be in its favor, arrested hundreds of NLD members of parliament and activists, gerrymandered districts, moved to ban parties, and controlled the media. It is also moving to establish a national identity card system that would be required for voting, but likely unavailable to much of the electorate. The junta also controls the Union Election Commission and the judiciary.
Various ethnic resistance organizations have already stated that no electoral activities will be allowed in their territory. The shadow government that emerged after the coup, the NUG, will probably lead a nationwide boycott of the elections, further diminishing the credibility of the vote.
Yet, while the junta is confident that they can rig a vote in their favor, they are much less confident that the international community will accept it. Coup leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing really believes that elections would allow him, Thai style, to cling to power and legitimize his regime.
While he can count on China, Russia and India, along with Japan and South Korea, to endorse any elections, giving the regime a fig leaf of legitimacy and allowing business as usual to resume, the key to international acceptance will be the stance of ASEAN.
The U.S. and the West have always said that ASEAN has to be the lead to any political resolution to the crisis in Myanmar. So it’s essential for the junta to try to preempt the bloc from rejecting the election’s results, before they’ve even happened.
The junta’s theory of victory
Despite considerable battlefield losses against Ethnic Resistance Organizations and People’s Defense Forces that have taken up arms since the coup, and a multi-front civil war, the junta has a theory of victory. The NUG’s center of gravity is their alliances and working relationships with the various ethnic armed organizations who also provide the NUG’s network of militias with arms and training. So they continue to dangle autonomy agreements and revenue sharing with any ethnic resistance organization that will show up in Naypyidaw.
The SAC also knows that time is on their side. Despite their gross economic mismanagement, they still have more resources than the NUG, they have access to weapons and arms, and can borrow money from abroad.
The junta simply has to hang on, and not lose any more territory before the elections slated for next August. Indeed, they are poised to begin their dry season offensive, trying to retake as much territory as possible and use their air power to bomb the ethnic resistance forces in the hopes that they quit the NUG and enter into peace talks.
And that’s why the release of Turnell, Bowman and others is so important. It will be interpreted by many in ASEAN and the international community as a goodwill gesture by the junta that will allow states that were starting to call for greater isolation of the junta to accept continued engagement.
For the junta, it all comes down to next year’s elections. It worked for the Thai junta that seized power in 2014, and was able within a few years to go from pariah to a normalized state, all while politically emasculating the opposition.
For Min Aung Hlaing, Bowman, Turnell, Kubota, and others are tokens to be exchanged for international endorsement. And they have many more to play, including the Lady herself — as Aung San Suu Kyi is known in Myanmar — as they maneuver to hold onto power. This is no humanitarian gesture, but a cynical and calculated ploy for international legitimacy.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or RFA.