The Debate | Opinion

Time for the International Community to Abandon the ASEAN Consensus on Myanmar

ASEAN’s approach to Myanmar hasn’t made any progress. The world must stop pretending it will.

Time for the International Community to Abandon the ASEAN Consensus on Myanmar
Credit: Depositphotos

April 24 marks exactly one year since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted the Five-Point Consensus on the crisis in Myanmar during its leaders’ meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The consensus was adopted during a meeting convened to address the Myanmar military’s deadly crackdowns following its seizure of power from the elected civilian government on February 1, 2021. Signed by Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing and the leaders of ASEAN’s nine other member states, the consensus called for the immediate cessation of violence, dialogue among conflict parties, mediation facilitated by an ASEAN special envoy, the delivery of humanitarian aid through ASEAN, and for the ASEAN special envoy to visit Myanmar to meet with all parties.

When it was adopted a year ago, the international community rushed to endorse the Five-Point Consensus – likely because, as an ASEAN-led initiative, they felt it was less likely to be controversial for two of Myanmar’s non-ASEAN immediate neighbors, India and China, rather than because it offered a real chance of success.

It was obvious from the very outset that the junta had no intention of changing course. It was also already clear by April 2021 that ASEAN’s usual “gentle persuasion” diplomatic approach would not succeed in convincing Min Aung Hlaing to relinquish power.

Yet today, a full year later, the international community continues to embrace the consensus as a viable process by which to break the political stalemate created by the coup.

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For example, in February 2022, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue made up of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, released a joint statement calling on Myanmar’s military to “urgently implement ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus and swiftly return Myanmar to the path of democracy.”

Any serious attempt to put Myanmar back on a credible path toward democratic transition must begin with coming to terms with the fact that the consensus is utterly irrelevant to the current situation.

After repeated failure to make any headway, it is time for the international community to abandon the Five-Point Consensus and start exploring other more practical alternatives and time-bound mechanisms in order to achieve concrete and favorable results in Myanmar. This is especially important and urgent given that ASEAN has announced a plan to hold a consultative meeting on how to deliver humanitarian aid as soon as late April or early May.

No party in Myanmar, especially the military junta, seems interested in a dialogue as the military continues its relentless campaign of terror in the fight against a growing resistance across the country.

The current ASEAN special envoy, Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, has been allowed to visit the country only once, this past March, when he was not allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi or other detained officials.

The envoy’s mission was framed as laying the groundwork for “creating a favorable condition leading to the end of violence,” encouraging political dialogue, and discussing the distribution of humanitarian assistance via the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management, also known as the AHA Center.

This raises the question of whether the AHA Center is well-suited to deliver humanitarian assistance in Myanmar as mandated under the consensus –  a question which has also been raised by the former executive director of the AHA Center, Adelina Kamal, who wrote in early February that ASEAN should support local non-state actors and networks to distribute aid rather than provide the aid itself.

By design, the AHA Center is equipped to respond to natural disasters rather than man-made crises such as the current crisis in Myanmar. Another major issue is that the center’s decision-making process involves ASEAN member states. Although Myanmar’s military junta has been excluded from political representation at ASEAN’s high-level meetings, the fact that the country has not been suspended from all decision-making processes within ASEAN or the AHA Center complicates aid distribution and its ability to be fair, impartial, and neutral at a time when the Myanmar military junta is actively blocking humanitarian aid delivery, deliberately targeting civilian populations, and embarking on a scorched-earth campaign of destruction, which has displaced around 500,000 people.

If the Myanmar military junta is a part of a decision-making process within ASEAN’s distribution of humanitarian aid via its AHA Center, any aid efforts will be ineffectual and meaningless. How would the Ukrainians, or much of the rest of the world, feel if the Kremlin were to be part of international aid delivery efforts in the ongoing war of aggression against Ukrainian people?

Some people outside of Myanmar may argue that one year is not enough time for ASEAN to prove that the Five-Point Consensus is a workable and viable diplomatic solution for tackling the multipronged crises in Myanmar. But one year is far too long for the millions of people in Myanmar facing daily terror and destruction from the military junta since the day it staged a coup.

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The international community should stop feeding the people of Myanmar with a false sense of hope from the failed ASEAN consensus. Insisting on the plan would only allow the murderous regime to buy time to further entrench and continue its cruel and violent ways.  It is time for the international community to acknowledge the failures of the consensus and immediately abandon it. The people of Myanmar deserve better.