ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

ASEAN’s Next Steps for Ending the Myanmar Crisis

ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar has the potential to push the warring parties onto the path of peaceful dialogue.

ASEAN’s Next Steps for Ending the Myanmar Crisis
Credit: Depositphotos

In general, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recognizes that engaging with the Myanmar military as an actor and institution is necessary for the resolution of the country’s present crisis and the future stability of Myanmar. This understanding was what convinced ASEAN to convene a special summit on Myanmar on April 24, and extend an invitation to junta leader Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. The Southeast Asian bloc has made the difficult-to-swallow but workable decision to interact with the very party whose seizure of power on February 1 triggered the ongoing political crisis.

As a result of these efforts, the meeting reached what has been described as a “firm” consensus, indicating Min Aung Hlaing’s acceptance of five points agreed during the summit: the “immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and for all parties to exercises utmost restraint; future commencement of constructive dialogue between all parties in the interests of the people; the appointment of a special envoy to facilitate mediation of the dialogue process with the assistance of the ASEAN Secretary-General; the provision of humanitarian assistance through the AHA Center; and planned visit for the special envoy and delegation to meet with all parties concerned.”

Both the organization of the summit and its result have been controversial. Those highlighting the human rights situation in Myanmar remain adamant that of the summit risks legitimizing the perpetrator of the coup. Those inclined to follow ASEAN processes have commended the progress made by the bloc and its willingness to communicate its views directly to Min Aung Hlaing in Jakarta, in addition to the commitments created by the five-point consensus. Indeed, some have described the meeting as a breakthrough.

ASEAN appears cognizant of the fact that in the worst-case scenario, the chaos and instability born out of a possible civil war in Myanmar could have serious effects on the region. And civil war is perhaps the likeliest scenario if the end goal is the immediate removal of the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, from their privileged position in Myanmar’s politics. The situation becomes all the more challenging when we consider that the Tatmadaw is also enmeshed in Myanmar’s economy and society in complex ways.

To avoid this, ASEAN leaders have opted to find a solution based on bringing about a quick end to the violence, while trying to somehow open the potential for negotiations aimed at giving the people of Myanmar a chance to decide their own future.

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Of course, the question is now, what follows ASEAN’s five-point consensus?

ASEAN’s top priority in the implementation of the consensus will revolve around working to ensure an end to violence. Ideally, the first step is for a rapid or gradual show of restraint from all parties, particularly the junta, without the elimination of the space for the right to peacefully protest, followed by some return to normalcy (e.g., resuming the flow of basic necessities to the public).

First of all, ASEAN will sooner or later have to clarify what it means by a “cessation of violence.” Defining this short-term goal will also likely relate to the scope of stakeholders to be engaged. Does the cessation of violence refer to the security forces’ violence towards civilian protesters only, or will it also include the violence involving struggles between the military and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in rural areas? How will ASEAN differentiate, when it comes to a possible future monitoring mission, what violence is related to the coup and the long-running confrontations between forces in outlying parts of the country? If no differentiation is made, the challenge becomes even greater.

Next, ASEAN will also have to work within the realities on the ground, taking note of the hardship of the people, the degree of their persistence, and the fact that few people are likely to accept an immediate return to normalcy. Some among the protesters have experienced significant traumas that have hardened their position against the military, complicating efforts to reinstate the old status quo.

One can simply listen to field accounts of doctors, nurses, and other medical workers, who have left their posts for the sake of the protest, claiming “no return to work” without an end to junta rule, to understand the degree of resolve within the rank of the protesters. Finding a balanced and workable way of addressing the views of protesters will be another big task.

To advance these aims, ASEAN’s appointment of a special envoy is crucial, as is the question of who will fill that role. To break the impasse, ASEAN’s special envoy will have the responsibility to meet representatives from all parties involved, to convince them of the plan for an ASEAN-led facilitation, and to secure their commitment to stop the violence.

The process of securing these visits to the representatives of “all parties” in Myanmar will also be hard, since ideally the envoy will have to meet not only with the Tatmadaw and the National Unity Government (NUG), but also a number of EAOs. This will be necessary if the ASEAN-led effort is to minimize grievances and contribute to a real and lasting peace in Myanmar.

In reaching out to these newer stakeholders and building a personal rapport with them, the success of the initial visits will likely depend on the envoy’s agility, stamina, and persistence, as well as their ability to read multiple different situations and react with tailored words. Building impressions and personal rapport with counterparts in Myanmar will be important for the success of the envoy’s mission which can be summed up by three objectives: first, to open barriers to communication between mistrusting parties; second, to secure access for the delivery of humanitarian aid to affected areas; and third, to sell the idea of a Myanmar-led, Myanmar-owned ASEAN-facilitated dialogue.

Outside Myanmar, the envoy will also have to deal with the task of working with Southeast Asian diplomats daily to maintain the support of ASEAN member states, and to interact with ASEAN dialogue partners, especially China, Japan, India, and Russia, and international institutions like the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The credibility of the envoy will play a significant role in determining the prospect of success. A record of first-hand experience in the country and/or in similar cases are the most likely foundation of the envoy’s credibility. Next, the ability to muscle in some small “warnings” to push parties to the negotiating table, and perhaps even a degree of cultural intuition about how to handle different actors, will also be important in the choice of who should serve in the important post. After all, the envoy needs to achieve a certain form of acceptability to “stay” among the conflicting parties and play multiple connecting roles in a limited timeframe before the process matures.

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These personal-level criteria will be important since, to induce concessions, the envoy will still have to at least do two things: persuade all parties in Myanmar that a negotiated outcome is preferable to a continuation on the current track, and to persuade them that the envoy’s attempt to communicate with their opposition will not work to harm the recognition of their own political demands.

To guarantee entry from the Tatmadaw, gain the trust of the NUG, and secure a hearing from the EAOs, will require both a certain degree of leverage, courtesy not only from the special status of the envoy, but also of his or her personal background. The biggest challenge now for ASEAN is to find such distinguished person with the stature and ability to capture the respect and trust of the various contending parties in Myanmar, enough to press forward a difficult process of negotiation. Whoever he or she is, the person will have to be able to embody ASEAN’s (limited) leverage in Myanmar.

For the time being, the first task is big enough: to secure from the Myanmar parties a swift commitment for an end to violence and a willingness to embark on a process of peaceful dialogue.