April 24 has been confirmed as the date for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ long-promised emergency meeting on the crisis in Myanmar. The news was broken on Thursday by Thai PBS World, which noted that leaders from all 10 ASEAN states, including Myanmar’s coup leader Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, are scheduled to attend the mini-summit in Jakarta.
Plans for a special ASEAN meeting have been in the works for some weeks, spearheaded by Indonesia and its foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, whose diplomatic push has been supported by Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore. The governments of Malaysia and Brunei announced that a meeting was planned on April 5, following a meeting between Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Hassanal Bolkiah, the sultan of Brunei, which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the Southeast Asian bloc.
In a statement, the two leaders claimed 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 Thai PBS World report, there was some delay in fixing the date and location of the meeting. Myanmar’s junta initially insisted that the summit should be held in Brunei but eventually agreed to go to Jakarta, which was favored as the venue by most other member countries.
The meeting comes at a critical time. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 726 people have been killed since the military’s seizure of power on February 1, and widespread protests and work stoppages have ground the economy and most of the civil administration to a halt.
Meanwhile, several thousand people have been arrested for their involvement in the anti-coup movement. Yesterday alone, about three dozen people, including a prominent protest leader, celebrities, activists, and ordinary citizens, were arrested by the junta authorities across four states and regions, according to The Irrawaddy.
The increasingly brutal and violent crackdown on the anti-coup protest movement generated a chorus of international condemnation, which has increased the pressure on ASEAN to take a leading role in addressing the crisis.
Yesterday, Reuters reported that the European Union has reportedly agreed to impose sanctions on another 10 individuals linked to the coup and the ensuing crackdowns, as well as the two large military-run conglomerates – Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation – that have already been targeted by the United Kingdom and United States.
Meanwhile, South Korean steel manufacturer POSCO today announced that it was severing its business ties with MEHL, becoming the latest foreign firm to reconsider its presence in Myanmar in the wake of the post-coup violence.
For many outside observers, and some inside ASEAN, the coup in Myanmar has laid bare the bloc’s shortcomings, threatening its much-prized claim to “centrality” in the region’s diplomacy. (Interested readers would be well advised to tune in to The Diplomat’s upcoming webinar on this topic on April 20.) Indeed, the fact that ASEAN is holding a meeting at all is a tacit recognition of this fact, at least among some member states.
Even so, expectations about the outcome of the special meeting should be tempered. Partly this is due to the confines of ASEAN’s current structure and operating principles, which prize consensus above all else. Such a consensus is likely to be a challenge in the case of Myanmar, as several individual ASEAN member states still insist on treating the crisis as the nation’s own “internal affair.” When ASEAN Foreign Ministers met by video link to discuss the coup at the beginning of March, the resulting joint statement was lackluster, failing to mention Myanmar until the eighth of the ten points contained in the statement.
Another thing to consider is the sheer intractability of the conflict in Myanmar, which pits an entrenched junta against an opposition movement of proven resilience that encompasses large swathes of Myanmar’s society. ASEAN’s most important advantage is its potential ability to bring both sides to the negotiating table – but if neither side is interested in negotiating, there’s not a lot that the other nine Southeast Asian nations can do about it. Indeed, it is likely that many protesters will view ASEAN’s willingness to sit down with Min Aung Hlaing as a sign that they regard the junta as the country’s legitimate government, and oppose any path forward that treats it as such.
The complex situation inside Myanmar, and the increasing outside pressure on the Southeast Asian bloc to do something about it, thus ensures that ASEAN will be forced to walk a fine line at the upcoming summit. “Whatever they say or do should be strong enough to maintain ASEAN’s credibility as an effective alibi to prevent premature action,” Bilahari Kausikan, the former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, wrote earlier this month, “but not so tough as to alienate the Tatmadaw and foreclose the possibility of ASEAN playing a substantive role in the future.”