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The African Union moves a quiet revolution
The African Union moves a quiet revolution
Help Contain the Damage of Myanmar’s Military Coup
Help Contain the Damage of Myanmar’s Military Coup
Op-Ed / Africa

The African Union moves a quiet revolution

Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor

With the world focus on terrorism, the war in Iraq, and now the tsunami, there is some hidden good news, surprisingly in Africa.

Over the past few years, there has been a quiet revolution occurring in Africa. For the first time, Africans are beginning to take responsibility for the continent's many conflicts. With the right international assistance, the effort can tip the balance from war to peace.

During a recent visit to the headquarters of the African Union (AU) here in the Ethiopian capital, I was struck by the fundamental shift in outlook since the union was created in July 2002 in Durban, South Africa. Gone is the 1960s mentality I had seen on my visit to the AU's predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, a decade ago when Africans blamed outsiders for their problems and looked everywhere but to themselves for solutions. The continent is finally heeding the call by South African President Thabo Mbeki for an African "renaissance," including finding African solutions to African problems.

Africa's leaders now recognize that the era of nonintervention in internal conflicts is over - that the myriad conflicts on the continent drag the whole region down and that the world will not solve their problems for them.

Perhaps the most important development is the creation last May of the 15-member Peace and Security Council, modeled after the UN Security Council, designed to address regional conflict. The plan is to create an early- warning system, a "Panel of the Wise" to troubleshoot, and an African Standby Force to intervene in crises within 10 days. Despite the West's pledges of "never again" following failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide a decade ago, Africa now realizes those pledges are hollow - that only Africans will send troops to stop bloodshed on its continent.

The crisis in Darfur, Sudan, underscores how little the West is prepared to do. Last month's north-south peace agreement and the UN call last week for bringing to justice those responsible for the human rights violations will, no doubt, add pressure for peace in Darfur. Yet nearly two years into the campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide launched by the Sudanese government, the international community has yet to sanction Khartoum or send troops to prevent the killings. Instead, it has called on the AU to send a 3,320-person observer and police force to deter the government's action - in a country the size of France. But no such force exists - Africans have been scrambling to create one from scratch. As one AU official told me last month, the organization is like a house under construction, with no roof yet: "People are asking us for protection from the rain and we are not yet ready."

While major hurdles remain, the progress is impressive. Woefully unprepared to respond to the Darfur crisis, the organization has moved into high gear. Today, about 1,400 AU personnel are on the ground in Darfur, with the rest expected by the end of this month. It is also making progress in creating its standby force of five 3,000- to 5,000-person brigades - one from each of Africa's five regions - by 2010. While west and southern Africa are ready, the other regions lag far behind.

The AU is much like the UN in 1945 - there are high ideals, but no functioning mechanisms to realize them. Six decades later, the UN still struggles to keep the world at peace. With today's African crises, the AU won't have the luxury of decades of preparation. It must act now. In addition to the strong leadership of the AU's chair, former president of Mali, Alpha Oumar Konare, the key to the organization's success is help from the European Union, the US, and other partners. They must do more in terms of resources, financial support, and knowledge. The institution can learn from the international community's mistakes in the 1990s and recognize when there is no peace to keep. In such cases, an African force can intervene until there is a peace to keep and the UN can take over.

The AU still has many unresolved issues, including where to find the resources and the political will to establish the standby force. How the body will relate to the many regional organizations on the continent, as well as to the EU and the UN, will only evolve with time. The AU recognizes it needs help and is refreshingly willing to seek advice and training.

Remnants of the old bureaucracy exist and streamlining is necessary: It's in urgent need of a real chief operating officer. As one top official told me, "If you want to buy a book, you have to go to the commissioner." Staff and funding are also needed to prioritize efforts, perhaps focusing first on the Peace and Security Council, while investing in the AU's other departments at a later stage.

With the right support from the international community - which must not abdicate its responsibility to help the continent - and good African leadership - the AU can make a significant contribution to the prevention and containment of Africa's conflicts.

Commentary / Asia

Help Contain the Damage of Myanmar’s Military Coup

The 1 February coup d’état has pushed Myanmar toward possible state collapse. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2021 – Spring Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to channel significant aid to Myanmar, support regional diplomacy, expand targeted sanctions on the regime and ensure that the EU arms embargo is strictly enforced.

The 1 February coup d’état in Myanmar has undone a decade of liberalisation, triggered a deep economic crisis, led to renewed ethnic armed conflict and set the country on the path toward possible state collapse. The security forces have responded to widespread popular resistance to the military takeover with brutal violence against demonstrators and the broader civilian population – killing hundreds and detaining thousands with the apparent aim of terrorising people into submission. Instead, resistance movements appear to have become even more determined, continuing to organise general strikes and acts of civil disobedience. Conflict has also resumed or escalated in several of the country’s ethnic areas as armed groups have deserted the peace process and attacked security forces. The economic meltdown prompted by the coup and the near collapse of many government functions, including the health and education systems, will have far-reaching and lasting consequences for Myanmar’s 55 million people. A humanitarian emergency is already in the making, as millions, particularly in cities, are pushed into poverty and face rising food insecurity.

The EU and its member states can help address the crisis in Myanmar by:

  • Channelling significant aid to address both the impending humanitarian emergency and longer-term needs relating to health, education and livelihoods; working to improve coordination among UN agencies, donors and implementing partners to ensure this aid’s efficient delivery; and urgently funding independent media;
  • Supporting regional diplomacy, particularly Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-led efforts, to boost the ASEAN special envoy’s legitimacy in engaging with the regime in a robust and effective manner; and backing efforts to convene an international contact group on Myanmar;
  • Maintaining and expanding targeted sanctions on the regime, the military and their business interests;
  • Continuing to engage closely with the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and the National Unity Government as well as other legitimate representatives of the Myanmar people;
  • Ensuring that the EU arms embargo is strictly enforced and sufficiently covers dual-use items and technological tools of surveillance and repression; working with EU partners to develop a coordinated list of prohibited items; and sharing information with like-minded countries on efforts to block transfers on a voluntary basis.

A Multi-dimensional Crisis

After grossly miscalculating how Myanmar’s people would react to the 1 February coup, the regime appears determined to impose its will on the population through sheer brutality. Snipers have shot unarmed protesters, including children, in the head. Police and soldiers have attacked protest barricades with rifle grenades and mortars, targeted medical first responders and fired randomly into crowds, at passing vehicles and even into homes at night. State television has broadcast photos of detainees bearing clear signs of torture, possibly as a warning to others against resisting the coup. Some female detainees have been subjected to sexual and gender-based violence during interrogations. These actions, no doubt intended to terrorise, have not achieved their goals. On the contrary, they have fuelled further resistance by inflaming the already simmering hatred of the military across the country. Although the regime almost entirely shut down the internet, general strikes and civil disobedience continue – with young female activists playing particularly prominent roles – and people keep finding new ways to express their dissent, for example by replacing demonstrations with flash mobs in order to avoid arrest. Close to four months on, the military is struggling to consolidate its power grab.

As a result of the violence, absence of governance, and strikes and civil disobedience, which also affect the private sector, Myanmar’s economy is falling apart.

As a result of the violence, absence of governance, and strikes and civil disobedience, which also affect the private sector, Myanmar’s economy is falling apart. Many have lost their jobs. Income-generating opportunities in the informal sector are drying up and the banking system is at a virtual standstill. Many people have great difficulty taking out cash due to Central Bank-mandated withdrawal limits, while the regime’s internet shutdown has prevented most from access to electronic banking and payment services. The combination of the banking crisis with a collapse in business and consumer confidence, widespread insecurity, and broken logistics and supply chains has resulted in a hard stop to economic activity, and the UN Development Programme now estimates that nearly half of Myanmar’s population risks falling into poverty by 2022.

At this rate, the poverty crisis will soon become a hunger crisis. Food markets are dysfunctional, with some staples unavailable, and surging prices for others. That many people are without income or access to cash leaves them unable to buy what food there is. On 22 April, the World Food Programme warned that up to 3.4 million additional people in Myanmar would struggle to afford food in the next three to six months, particularly in urban areas.

Likewise, the public health and education systems have all but collapsed, as the vast majority of medical staff and teachers – most of them women – refuse to work for the regime. Schools, already closed for months due to COVID-19, have seen their planned reopening stall due to striking teachers and parents afraid for their children’s safety. Many public hospitals and clinics are shuttered, and soldiers have converted others, in key city locations, into forward operating bases after evicting the patients. COVID-19 testing and treatment have virtually stopped and the vaccination program is far behind schedule. With regular childhood vaccinations in jeopardy and key imported pharmaceuticals in short supply, public health experts are worried that a decade of progress in improving basic health care and tackling infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria will now be lost.

Meanwhile, armed conflict is increasing in several of the country’s ethnic areas. While full-scale conflict between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups has not yet erupted, clashes have escalated significantly since the coup. In some regions, such as Kachin and Kayin States, the situation is edging toward a resumption of all-out conflict, with the regime even resorting to airstrikes – including upon civilian targets. Several armed groups have put an end to existing ceasefires – some under pressure from their own constituencies to oppose the coup. While some may choose not to, it is now clear that the formal peace process for a negotiated political solution to Myanmar’s numerous ethnic conflicts is dead. Any hope of resolving the Rohingya crisis in the foreseeable future has also evaporated.

Any hope of resolving the Rohingya crisis in the foreseeable future has also evaporated.

Another significant development is the formation of civil defence forces or militias by local communities, including in Sagaing and Magway Regions and Chin State. Armed with locally made hunting rifles as well as a small number of assault weapons and grenades, these groups are not capable of confronting experienced and well-armed army units, but they are able to use local knowledge of the terrain to harass and ambush soldiers, including in urban environments. Underground resistance groups are also carrying out improvised explosive device and arson attacks on regime targets and government administrative offices in Yangon, Mandalay and elsewhere, while hundreds of protesters have travelled from cities to non-government-controlled areas to receive military training from ethnic armed groups.

Growing conflict and insecurity in many parts of the country, coupled with a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis, may lead to significant population flows both internally and across the country’s borders.

Responding to the Crisis

With no sign of either an end to violence or a return to civilian rule, the EU and member states should take a number of steps to respond to the coup and its aftermath.

The first is to make urgent preparations to provide significant levels of support to ordinary people in order to address not only the looming humanitarian emergency but also longer-term needs related to the collapse of the health and education systems and the loss of livelihoods. The EU has already provided an extra €9 million for urgent humanitarian relief, but suspended its development assistance in March as a result of the coup. In order to deliver aid at scale while bypassing traditional mechanisms now under the junta’s control, the EU and member states should explore working through NGO and civil society channels (while protecting them from being overwhelmed or put at risk), multi-donor funds and UN agencies if possible, and local government systems as appropriate. To ensure efficient delivery of such aid, the EU should advocate for the nomination of a senior UN envoy for relief and recovery planning, who could be appointed by the Secretary-General to bring coherence and coordination to UN agencies’, donors’ and implementing partners’ responses to the crisis. With Myanmar’s media under immense pressure, Brussels should also urgently fund independent media outlets, who play a vital role in getting reliable information to the population and the outside world.

Secondly, the EU should support global and regional diplomatic efforts to address the crisis. While the ongoing ASEAN-led process has significant limitations, it is the only diplomatic initiative under way and arguably the only platform for engaging both the regime and representatives of the elected civilian government. The EU should support it with the objective of making it more robust and effective, including by pushing for the speedy nomination of an ASEAN special envoy to help address the crisis and by pressing the junta to permit the envoy to travel to Myanmar as soon as possible. The EU should also back the convening of a contact group on Myanmar comprising key regional and Western countries, an idea that has been quietly discussed and that could usefully complement the ASEAN process. Finally, the Union and its member states should continue to engage closely with the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (a group of parliamentarians elected in November 2020) and the National Unity Government that it has appointed, as well as other representatives of Myanmar’s people, such as ethnic leaders (including Rohingya).

Thirdly, the EU should continue to develop its framework of restrictive measures. It should continue to expand targeted sanctions on the military and its business interests, members of the regime, its cabinet, senior police and military officers, and military-owned or -linked companies. It should, however, refrain from revoking Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade scheme that gives developing country products tariff-free access to the single market, as the impact would fall on workers – mainly young women from poor families employed in the garment industry – and there are no indications that such a move would create leverage over the regime.

Finally, the EU should strictly enforce its arms embargo and make sure that it sufficiently covers dual-use items and technological tools of surveillance and repression. The EU and its member states should work to develop with other partner countries a coordinated list of prohibited items and share information on their efforts to block transfers of such items. This step would create a framework for like-minded countries to coordinate constraints on the military.