ASEAN’s Special Leaders Meeting on Myanmar, One Month On

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

ASEAN’s Special Leaders Meeting on Myanmar, One Month On

The bloc’s progress has been sluggish, but it reflects in part the deadlocked nature of the country’s crisis.

ASEAN’s Special Leaders Meeting on Myanmar, One Month On

Southeast Asian leaders take part in the ASEAN Leaders Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 24, 2021.

Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Kusuma Pandu Wijaya

Today marks one month since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened an ad hoc Leaders Meeting to address the crisis in Myanmar.

During the meeting, leaders from the 10 ASEAN states, including Myanmar junta leader Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, established five points of consensus about the Myanmar crisis: the cessation of violence; “constructive dialogue” between the various parties; the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy; the facilitation of humanitarian aid; and the deployment of the special envoy to Myanmar to meet with the various contending parties.

ASEAN’s “five-point consensus” functioned as something of a Rorschach test when it came to views of the 10-member Southeast Asian bloc. For those inclined to support ASEAN’s gradual, consensus-based diplomacy, it represented the best chance for a peaceful resolution of the crisis that has gripped Myanmar since the military seized power on February 1. For the organization’s critics, the ASEAN Leaders Meeting legitimized the coup government and strengthening the hand of the military, while securing few commitments in return.

A month on, it seems at first glance as if the critics had a point. By inviting junta leader Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to the Jakarta meeting, ASEAN took a risk that the junta would use the event to bolster its legitimacy and play for time while strengthening its hold on power.

That was arguably justified if it resulted in a diplomatic process with a realistic chance of ending the violence and opening a political dialogue between the junta and its opponents. But neither of these things have seen much progress. Indeed, ASEAN has done little to advance any of the five points of consensus, while the Tatmadaw continues to use violence against civilians and launch offensives that have displaced of thousands of people in border areas.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local civil rights group, at least 818 people have been killed since the coup of February 1, 70 of them since the ASEAN summit on April 24. The country continues to be gripped by protests and work stoppages. With stalemate setting in, a solution seems as remote as ever.

“It has already been a full month and nothing has changed,” Charles Santiago, a Malaysian parliamentarian who chairs the rights group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said in a statement last week. “Min Aung Hlaing is blatantly ignoring ASEAN’s calls and wasting their time. The consensus that was reached in April was a good initiative, but now ASEAN must prove that they can pay more than just lip service.”

ASEAN’s sluggishness is most evident on the one point of consensus most amenable to rapid progress: the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy. Several possible candidates have been suggested, including former Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda and former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

But Brunei, which currently holds ASEAN’s rotating chair, has yet to name an envoy. In an editorial last week, the Jakarta Post said the delay was “ridiculous,” describing it as “a very simple undertaking that does not need very comprehensive considerations.”

In an article today for The Irrawaddy, Kavi Chongkittavorn argued that ASEAN has pressured the State Administration Council (SAC), as the junta terms itself, to come up with dates for an initial visit by a joint team representing the ASEAN chair, but it has not yet been forthcoming. As Kavi wrote, the announcement of the ASEAN envoy and members of the task force for humanitarian assistance “will not be made until after the joint visit.”

Whatever the source of the delay, the envoy would be far from a silver bullet; the SAC has already rejected any visit by the ASEAN envoy until it has achieved “the stability and security of the country.” But it once again highlights the bloc’s structural shortcomings – in particular, its lack of coercive mechanisms for recalcitrant members – and the ambivalence of many ASEAN member states to taking a strong line on a fellow member’s “internal affairs.”

Yet despite all of the shortcomings of ASEAN’s process, the bloc’s boosters are right that there are few other obvious paths through the political thicket.

The wider international response to the Myanmar crisis has deadlocked on a lack of consensus. This has stemmed both from legitimate differences about the best way to address the situation and competitive jockeying by nations with strategic and economic interests in Myanmar.

Western nations including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union have all imposed sanctions targeting key junta personnel and the sprawling conglomerates that are the source of much of the Tatmadaw’s revenue. Given the limited Western investments in Myanmar, and the insular, cloistered outlook of the military top brass, these are unlikely to alter the decision-making calculus of Min Aung Hlaing and other senior commanders. Western powers ultimately have little leverage over the junta.

Meanwhile, neighboring countries like China, India, and Thailand have continued to trade and engage with Myanmar, despite their misgivings about what has transpired in the country.

In this context of stalemate, ASEAN remains the one diplomatic actor that might be able to secure the junta’s buy-in to a process of negotiation, perhaps in concert from Western economic pressure. The United Nations Security Council has since endorsed the ASEAN consensus, and for lack of anything better, many outside powers have also expressed their support for the bloc’s process.

The fact that the critics and the boosters are both right – that the ASEAN process has failed to progress since April 24 yet remains the most viable way forward – speaks to the intractability of the crisis facing Myanmar and the region.

As I’ve argued before, Southeast Asian governments are faced with a situation in which neither party to the crisis has much inclination to compromise with the other. The NUG and anti-coup forces reject any central role for the military, and their goal is now tantamount to the defeat of the Tatmadaw and the refashioning of the country’s politics along more inclusive lines.

The military junta, meanwhile, has shown through its actions that it is content to wait out its opponents, while employing violent force to break active resistance. As Kavi Chongkittavorn put it in his article today, “it is clear that all protagonists are still entertaining wishful thoughts that their side will prevail.”

This poses perhaps insurmountable challenges to getting any diplomatic process off the ground. It also suggests that no solution to the crisis is likely to emerge any time soon, and that it may be many more months before we can render a binding verdict on ASEAN’s approach to the Myanmar crisis.