After a flurry of intra-regional diplomatic visits, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has agreed to convene a special meeting in Jakarta to address the crisis in Myanmar, which continues to inch toward the brink of a nationwide civil war.
The governments of Malaysia and Brunei made the announcement yesterday, following a meeting between Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Hassanal Bolkiah, the sultan of Brunei, which holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN for 2021.
At the end of a joint statement issued at the close of the meeting, the two leaders said that they “agreed for ASEAN leaders to meet to discuss the ongoing developments in Myanmar and tasked their respective ministers and senior officials to undertake necessary preparations for the meeting that will be held at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia.” The two sides did not announce a date for the special summit.
Claiming that “it remains in ASEAN’s greater interest to see Myanmar resolve the crisis and regain stability,” the statement also expressed its customary concern for the deteriorating situation inside the country, and “urged all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to immediately exercise utmost restraint and flexibility.” According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 570 people have been killed by security forces since the coup, and more than 3,000 arrested.
Whenever it happens, the meeting will be the culmination of efforts by key ASEAN member states, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, to get the bloc more involved in resolving the crisis in Myanmar. These diplomatic efforts represent an awareness that the military’s coup and its aftermath has put ASEAN’s credibility on the line, calling into question the legitimacy of its claim to occupy a position of centrality in the region’s diplomacy.
For instance, now that most Western governments have strongly condemned the coup, imposing sanctions on key military figures and their economic interests, it is hard to see any of them agreeing to sit at the same table as junta figures at the ASEAN Summit and associated meetings later this year. Indeed, similar considerations prompted ASEAN’s decision to push Myanmar to give up its chairmanship of the bloc in 2006.
It is less clear what ASEAN might do this time to resolve the situation. The Malaysian and Bruneian announcement came a few days after anti-coup forces, led by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a group made up of elected parliamentarians formally announced plans to set up a “unity government,” released an interim constitution, and formally declared the military-drafted 2008 constitution void.
As I noted last week, the move “heralds the creation of a more cohesive and formalized parallel government able to mount a more serious bid for international recognition.” It also seeks to attract the support of Myanmar’s myriad ethnic armed organizations, whose support will be vital if the anti-coup movement is to prevail.
In the short term, the creation of a parallel government is likely to sharpen the lines of conflict between the military and a broad-based anti-coup movement seeking not just the reversal of its seizure of power on February 1, but also the permanent extrication of the military from Myanmar’s politics and the recasting of the country as an inclusive federal democracy.
With the CRPH and associated Civil Disobedience Movement now beginning to raise funds, and harboring the aim of forming a united federal army to battle the Tatmadaw, there is a growing likelihood of Myanmar’s civil conflicts – which have raged nearly non-stop since the country’s independence in 1948 – engulfing the entire country. Last week a special U.N. envoy warned that Myanmar “is on the verge of spiraling into a failed state.”
The crisis thus looms as a fight to the end between the military caste and its opponents, with neither side showing much willingness as yet to compromise, or even engage in negotiations, with the other.
All this is a challenging knot to unpick for ASEAN, which is restricted by its operating principles of non-interference and consensus. While the bloc’s members have interpreted the former principle flexibly in the past, such as when it urged Myanmar to give up its chairmanship in 2006, shepherding all 10 of the bloc’s member-states toward a consensus on a more active approach will be a formidable challenge.
Even then, ASEAN’s most likely diplomatic path is the brokering of talks between the military junta and representatives from the CRPH, perhaps with the involvement of other international players. But this is not guaranteed to be accepted by either of the warring groups, neither the anti-coup protesters, for whom any hint of compromise of negotiation is tantamount to support for the junta, nor the generals in their Naypyidaw bunkers, whose recent actions show similarly little willingness to come to the table.
Whenever the summit happens, it will require a bout of supernaturally resourceful, creative diplomacy if it is to end in anything other than another formulaic recital of concern.