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Malaysia kena kecam for meeting officials in Myanmar. But what’s the big deal?

When it comes to foreign relations, Malaysia seems to be throwing itself into drama a lot recently. There’s that crapstorm when our Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein allegedly referred to China as ‘big brother’ earlier this month, although he had later clarified that he was referring to China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi personally. While that whole drama was going on, another sorta faux pas had happened right after that, and it kind of flew under the radar.

Just a few days after the Hishamuddin issue, Malaysian ambassador Zahairi Baharim reportedly had a meeting with Aung Than Oo, the person currently in charge of  Myanmar’s Electricity and Energy Ministry. Seems like normal diplomatic stuff, so if you haven’t been paying attention to international news, you might be wondering why the meeting ‘sparked an uproar, with both the opposition and outside observers criticizing it.

Well, if you missed it the whole train, let’s start off with something shocking. There’s an upheaval in Myanmar, and from the start of February until the time of writing


More than 700 people had been killed by the Myanmar government

And we’re not talking about the Rohingyas this time. Among the many, many things that might have passed through your timeline in the past two months, you might remember seeing this video sometime in February:

Apparently, what’s going on in the background of the video was a coup by the Myanmar military, aka the ‘military junta‘ or more formally the State Administration Council (SAC). Think of our backdoor government drama, but a thousand times darker.

Instead of a political drama where people scrabbled for numbers, the military took over and detained anybody who could be a threat, be them politicians, activists, or even influencers. And instead of memes about Super Ring, the aftermath of protests over what happened is a lot worse: as of last week, at least 700 civilians (including children) had been killed, either by the military or the police forces.

Aiyo, what’s going on over there? In very simple terms, Myanmar’s government had often been influenced by their military (now known as the Tatmadaw) as far back as their pre-independence days. When the civilian democratic government failed in the 1960s, the military stepped in and took hold of the country through a coup. The military stayed in power well until the 2000s, going from a direct military rule to a constitutional dictatorship. While elections were held during this time, they were often fraught with problems.

Aung San Suu Kyi, of the NLD, was placed under house arrest prior to the 1990 elections. Img by David van der Veen/epa/Corbis.

It wasn’t until an election in 2010 when a civilian government was put in power, albeit with significant military influence. But that only lasted for a decade. In November 2020, another election was held, with a win by the civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The winning representatives were supposed to be sworn into the Parliament on Feb 2, 2021, but the day before that the Tatmadaw declared that the results were invalid and launched the coup.

The power was transferred to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and they announced Myanmar to be under a year-long state of emergency, after which a re-election will be held. Since then, the new government had detained people and put out arrest warrants for more, controlled the media, restricted gatherings, imposed curfews, killed civilians, and essentially ruled with an iron fist.

A defaced (Hitler mustache added) portrait of Min Aung Hlaing during a protest of the coup. Img from SCMP.

So with all these in mind, Malaysia sending an ambassador over there can be seen as giving legitimacy to this controversial government, especially when Zahairi was said to be the first Asean ambassador to have a meeting with the junta.

“This endorsement of the government engaged in crimes against humanity conflicts with other statements by Malaysian leaders and speaks to a worrying shift in Asean,” – Bridget Welsh, Southeast Asia political analyst, in a tweet.



It seems that the meeting was purely business

Petronas’ offshore platform in Yetagun, Myanmar. Img from 2b1st Consulting.

Following criticism, the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry had stated that the meeting was merely to announce that a subsidiary of Petronas will be stopping upstream operations of their gas project in Yetagun, offshore of Myanmar. Apparently the place is running out of gas, and continuing their project there would be risky. They’ve also stated that the meeting should not be seen as Malaysia recognizing the legitimacy of Myanmar’s current military administration.

Malaysia’s position on Myanmar is clear and consistent. We have persistently called for an immediate end to violence, unconditional and immediate release of political detainees, and resumption of an inclusive dialogue involving all concerned parties for a political transition and peaceful settlement of the ongoing crisis in the interest of Myanmar and her people.,” – Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry, in a statement.

In response to Wisma Putra’s statement, the Milk Tea Alliance Network for Malaysia – a Malaysian chapter of an international online movement for democracy – had said that while the explanation is heartening, Malaysia must remain consistent in its stance and avoid sending mixed messages.

Any interaction that can be perceived as legitimizing the coup and the killings by the junta government must be stopped at once. Failure to do so will show that you are undecided and will confuse people […] Your visits can be on military-sponsored TV and twisted to fit the junta’s narrative,” – Milk Tea Alliance Network for Malaysia spokesman, to MalaysiaKini.

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