Assessing the Outcome of ASEAN’s Special Meeting on Myanmar

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Assessing the Outcome of ASEAN’s Special Meeting on Myanmar

The outcome of the special summit reflected both ASEAN’s limitations and the intractable nature of the country’s crisis.

Assessing the Outcome of ASEAN’s Special Meeting on Myanmar

In this photo released by Indonesian Presidential Palace, Southeast Asian leaders convene during their meeting at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, April 24, 2021.

Credit: Laily Rachev, Indonesian Presidential Palace via AP

On Saturday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held its much-anticipated emergency summit to address the ongoing crisis in Myanmar.

In the three months since the military seized power and deposed the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the country has ground to a halt amid nationwide protests and escalating violence by the security forces, which have claimed the lives of at least 753 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The junta has also throttled communications, cutting off internet every night for more than two months and banning mobile internet and public wifi connections.

At the end of Saturday’s meeting, leaders from the 10 ASEAN member states, including Myanmar’s junta leader Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, established five points of consensus about the Myanmar crisis. First, that there should be “an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar”; second, that the parties in Myanmar should seek a peaceful solution to the crisis via “constructive dialogue”; third, that Brunei, this year’s ASEAN Chair, will appoint a special envoy to mediate in the Myanmar crisis; fourth, that ASEAN will provide humanitarian assistance to the country; and fifth, that the special envoy will travel to Myanmar to meet with all parties in the crisis.

This consensus should not be gainsaid, given the dilatory response of the bloc thus far, and the vastly divergent views of the bloc’s leaders, some of whom fear that a more interventionist approach might threaten their own grip on power. Nonetheless, there were several obvious areas in which the consensus fell short of the ideal.

The first and most obvious shortcoming is that while ASEAN leaders “heard calls for the release of all political prisoners,” the consensus statement did not call for their release, an assumed prerequisite to any “constructive dialogue” between Myanmar’s coup government and its elected one. (Around 4,400 people have been arrested since the coup, 3,441 of which remain in detention, according to AAPP.) One can only assume that this omission came about due to the Myanmar junta’s opposition.

By calling on “all parties” to refrain from violence, moreover, the consensus statement perpetuates the “both-sidesism” that marred the statement that came out of the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting held by video link at the beginning of March. While this was perhaps unavoidable given the presence at the meeting of junta representatives, it nonetheless carried the unsavory false implication that both the opposition and the military are responsible for the violence, when in reality the vast majority of the violence has been carried out by the latter.

The second major shortcoming was the lack of clarity around how and when ASEAN will engage with the National Unity Government (NUG), the new shadow government that was formed to oppose the junta in mid-April.

On Tuesday, the NUG, which had demanded to be included in the summit as Myanmar’s legitimate government, said it welcomed ASEAN’s call for an end to “military violence” after crisis talks in Jakarta with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing. “We look forward to firm action by ASEAN to follow up its decisions and restore our democracy and freedom for our people and for the region,” Dr Sasa, the NUG’s minister of international cooperation, told AFP.

While ASEAN negotiators could reasonably claim that demanding the NUG’s inclusion in Saturday’s summit would have prevented the summit from going ahead at all, there is no indication as to how it plans to engage with the government that enjoys the support of the vast majority of Myanmar’s population.

The third problem flows from the second: namely, that the consensus statement contained no timetable on a process of negotiation and mediation that even in the best case scenario is likely to be protracted. To be sure, setting a timetable only invites its violation, and ASEAN might benefit from the flexibility of a more open schedule for negotiations. However, as Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations noted yesterday, with no timetable or obvious means of enforcing the agreed consensus, “the summit statement gives more time for the situation in Myanmar to continue on. And, time often favors the aggressor, which in this case is the Myanmar military.”

Indeed, all of these shortcomings have been cast into relief by the junta’s first official response to the ASEAN summit. A press released carried in the Global New Light of Myanmar on Tuesday makes no mention of the consensus, and states that the State Administration Council, as the junta euphemizes itself, “will give careful consideration to constructive suggestions made by ASEAN leaders when the situation returns to stability.”

Moreover, the statement asserts that these suggestions would be “positively considered” only in the event that they “facilitate the implementation of the five-step roadmap laid down by the State Administration Council.” (Given that one of these five steps is the attainment of a “lasting and sustainable peace in the entire country,” one would assume ASEAN will be waiting some time.) This alone indicates that Min Aung Hlaing’s administration will only be willing to talk when it is more or less assured that its position is secure.

The press release would seem to validate the claims of those who said that ASEAN would achieve little by inviting Min Aung Hlaing to Jakarta, except to grant the junta a sheen of legitimacy. Yet taking the opposite approach – extending an invitation to the NUG as the country’s legitimate government but excluding the junta – would ignore the reality that the military remains in possession of considerable reserves of lethal force, and shows little indication of backing down. In a hostage situation, it makes no sense to ignore the man with the gun.

The alternative would be for ASEAN to back the NUG and work to bring about the junta’s defeat – a highly risky strategy. While it is conceivable that the junta, deprived of regional support and ground down by widespread civil disobedience and attacks by ethnic armed groups, might eventually capitulate, the more plausible scenario would be a fight to the bitter end, with an unknown toll in terms of lives. In the event that neighboring powers like India and China might intervene to secure their interests in the country, it could even spark a wider regional conflict.

Beyond that, the ambiguous outcome of the ASEAN meeting touches on what are perhaps the fundamental questions facing foreign governments over the Myanmar crisis: Is neutrality on the events in Myanmar desirable, or even possible? And should the priority of foreign nations be to stave off further bloodshed – a concrete but limited goal – or to help bring about a more fundamental resolution of the nation’s troubles – a comprehensive but perilous one?

ASEAN’s vacillating stance on the coup has been widely criticized by commentators, including many who have long viewed the grouping with skepticism. But in addition to reflecting ASEAN’s structural shortcomings and deficit of unity, the summit’s ambiguous outcome also reflects the intractability of the present crisis, in which neither side seems willing to acknowledge the other as a legitimate interlocutor.

That could change with time, but for now the main challenge is whether and how ASEAN can push the junta to adhere to the five-point consensus, with the hope of eventually shifting the crisis onto terrain on which the junta and the NUG might be willing to enter into negotiations. The first step will be the appointment of a special enjoy and his or her prompt dispatch to Myanmar, for talks with both the junta and the NUG.

The statement today from Myanmar’s junta would seem to augur a slim chance of success. But as Ben Bland of the Lowy Institute argued yesterday, “Rather than exalt ASEAN or lambast it – the default responses of many external commentators – the rest of the world needs to think about what they can do to support ASEAN’s efforts to bring peace and stability to Myanmar.”