Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will again hold a special meeting on Thursday to discuss the ongoing emergency in Myanmar, and to judge whether to shift its approach at a key regional summit next month.
Reuters quoted a Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesperson as saying that the meeting will be held at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, and will discuss recommendations on how to push forward the country’s Myanmar diplomacy ahead of the ASEAN summit and related meetings on November 8-13.
The meeting will assess the implementation of the bloc’s Five-Point Consensus peace plan, which was agreed at a special ASEAN meeting in April 2021, two months after the military launched a coup and overthrew the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
In the 18 months since, the military-backed State Administration Council (SAC) has shown virtually no commitment to the Five-Point Consensus. Far from adhering to the plan’s calls for an immediate end to violence and dialogue between “all parties” to the country’s conflict, the SAC has redoubled its attacks on resistance forces and civilian forces believed to be harboring them, and refused to deal with any opposition forces, which it has described as “terrorists.”
Frustration has been building within ASEAN for some time, with certain member states – particularly, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore – becoming increasingly outspoken in their criticisms of the junta. Political representatives of the SAC have been excluded from high-level meetings of the bloc since last year’s ASEAN Summit, and Cambodia has already confirmed that this will be true of the upcoming summit as well.
A tipping point of sorts appears to have been reached at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in August, which occurred shortly after the military junta executed four political prisoners, ignoring a personal appeal from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to desist. In the joint communique released after the meeting, the meeting recommended that the military junta’s adherence to the Five-Point Consensus be reviewed at next month’s ASEAN Summit.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, who has led the bloc’s push for a more creative and robust approach toward the crisis, said last month that prior to the summit, ASEAN needed to decide whether the Five-Point Consensus was still relevant, and if not, to take a new approach.
“The ASEAN Secretariat must have a sense of urgency to look into what is actually happening in Myanmar,” he told reporters last month. “They (the ASEAN secretariat) must have a full-time team working on the conflict, otherwise people get killed in between all of our meetings… We must buck up.”
In particular, Saifuddin has advocated that ASEAN open direct talks with the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), and is the only Southeast Asian foreign minister to meet publicly with NUG representatives.
This week’s special meeting will give outside observers a good indication of whether ASEAN plans to shift its approach, and if so, how far. There is no doubt that change of some sort is needed. The Five-Point Consensus has been doomed by its assumption of good faith on the part of Myanmar’s military, which sees little political incentive in compromising with groups that it views as “terrorists.” Given that ASEAN has treated it as Myanmar’s government, this has accorded it a de facto veto over any more inclusive approach.
But as always, mustering the necessary consensus to shift ASEAN’s approach in a more interventionist direction – say, in the direction of suspending Myanmar’s ASEAN membership – will be a challenge. Even if the military junta is excluded, the bloc’s remaining nine member states have differing views about how far the bloc can go in intervening in the internal affairs of one of its member states. Whatever the decision, ASEAN’s diplomatic credibility to manage the affairs of its members, let alone its claim to a position of “centrality” in the region’s diplomatic architecture, is hanging in the balance.