Those expecting to be disappointed by the outcome of yesterday’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) informal meeting on Myanmar had plenty to be, well, disappointed about.
The virtual talks, in which nine ASEAN foreign ministers held talks with the junta’s newly appointed foreign minister, came two days after the bloodiest day of unrest since the military seized power and overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on February 1.
In terms of joint action, the closest thing the meeting produced was a statement issued by current ASEAN chair Brunei, which failed to mention Myanmar until the eighth of its ten paragraphs.
“We expressed our concern on the situation in Myanmar and called on all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility,” the statement said. “We also called on all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution, through constructive dialogue.”
In addition to implying an equivalence between the military government and the protesters who have been shot and teargassed for resisting the junta’s rule (“all parties”), Brunei’s statement also said the ministers “heard calls” for the release of political prisoners, without identifying from whence these calls came.
The wishy-washy language in Brunei’s statement is a probably response to the position taken by the junta’s foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin. Myanmar state media reported that its envoy attended an ASEAN meeting that “exchanged views on regional and international issues,” but made no mention of the purpose of the talks. It said Wunna Maung Lwin “apprised the meeting of voting irregularities” in last November’s election, which has been used as the pretext for the military takeover.
Four ASEAN member-states – not coincidentally, the four most democratic – issued more strongly worded statements during and after the meeting. In an interview with the BBC, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the coup as “an enormous tragic step back” for Myanmar. “To use lethal force against civilians and unarmed demonstrators, I think it is just not acceptable. That is disastrous not just internationally, but disastrous domestically,” he said.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said during the online meeting that his government “calls for the prompt and unconditional release of detained political leaders in Myanmar, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Win Myint and their associates, and encourages dialogue between parties concerned.”
After initially claiming that the coup was Myanmar’s “internal affair,” the Philippines issued a surprisingly robust statement. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin stressed that the Philippines recognizes Aung San Suu Kyi’s “unifying role in her country’s history and in its destiny” and called for a restoration of a “complete return to the previously existing state of affairs.”
Finally, Indonesia, which has been outspoken about the coup and has spearheaded regional diplomatic efforts, finished with a rebuke of the new coup government in Naypyidaw. “The wish and goodwill of ASEAN to help will be unable to be carried out if Myanmar doesn’t open its doors to ASEAN,” Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said after the meeting.
These statements rang out especially loudly against the silence from the four remaining ASEAN member states: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. A statement from the Cambodian Foreign Ministry closely echoed the report in Myanmar state media, noting only that foreign ministers “exchanged views on regional and international issues of common interest and concern, including on the current developments in Myanmar.”
The lackluster outcome predictably reflects ASEAN’s difficulty in forging a consensus for intervention in Myanmar from a membership with vastly divergent concerns and interests, not least political self-interest. But it is probably a bit early to give up on the Southeast Asian bloc’s ability to play a constructive role in the Myanmar crisis.
As I argued in a blog post yesterday, the Tatmadaw’s coup has put ASEAN’s international credibility, including even its coveted position of “centrality” in the region’s diplomacy, on the line. Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said as much in a statement yesterday, noting that a failure to take meaningful action in the case of Myanmar “would starkly underscore our lack of unity, and undermine our credibility and relevance as an organization.” This gives the region’s most active governments a strong incentive to continue searching for ways to involve the bloc in efforts aimed at resolving the country’s crisis.
It is also worth asking how reasonable the outside expectations of ASEAN are. It is far from certain that the approach taken to the coup by many Western democracies – a policy that might be summarized as “condemn and sanction” – is the right way forward, either for ASEAN or in general. As Bill Hayton argued an article today, there is clarity and comfort in condemnation, and “much thankless labor involved in engineering compromise.”
But compromise of some kind is probably unavoidable, sooner or later: the military is entrenched, well-resourced, indifferent to Western opinion, and seemingly girding itself for a violent struggle. “Myanmar is at the tipping point,” Hayton argued. “The time for hard choices is now, before more blood flows in the streets and the country enters another dark decade. The international community must open avenues for dialogue to achieve difficult compromises.”
ASEAN’s fundamentally pragmatic method of engagement, and its status as a regional partner of Myanmar, give it an important role to play in any efforts to this end – and it stands a much better chance if its own efforts are supported by those from the United States, Japan, China, the European Union, and the many other nations that would prefer to see Myanmar return to some form of normalcy. In the current circumstances, that might be about the best the world can hope for.