Human rights groups and civil society organizations have criticized a plan by Thailand’s caretaker government to convene another “informal” meeting on the crisis in Myanmar, arguing that it will undermine efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to broker a solution to the country’s conflict.
On Saturday, Reuters published a report revealing that Thailand’s caretaker government had invited ASEAN leaders to an informal meeting to discuss the conflict in Myanmar. According to the news agency, which obtained a copy of the invitation letter from Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai to the other ASEAN governments, the purpose of the meeting was to “fully re-engage” Myanmar’s military rulers, in order to revive ASEAN’s stagnant Five-Point Consensus peace plan.
Initially scheduled for Sunday, the meeting was then delayed until today, as a number of ASEAN member states declined the invitation to attend the meeting.
In a statement yesterday, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the meeting, the third freelance Myanmar-related gathering that the country had hosted since December, and said that it would be attended by representatives from Laos, Cambodia, Brunei, Vietnam, India, and China. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have all confirmed that they will not attend, while the Philippines is also expected to remain on the sidelines.
The statement said that the purpose of the informal dialogue is to discuss a range of topics to complement ASEAN’s efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict that has raged since the military coup of February 2021.
Foreign Minister Don’s June 14 letter said the proposed meeting would be “part of the initial steps” of the peace process and cited the summit where “a member nation” made an unequivocal statement that “it was time for the Southeast Asian bloc to fully re-engage Myanmar at the leaders’ level.”
“A number of members supported the call and some were willing to consider, there was no explicit dissenting voice,” Don said in the letter, according to Reuters. “Should this informal ministerial engagement make substantial positive progress, we would like to suggest that a carpe diem back-to-back meeting of leaders be convened thereafter.”
However, the meeting has been roundly criticized on a number of counts. The first is the inclusion of the military junta’s foreign minister, Than Swe, which effectively undercuts ASEAN’s established policy of not inviting political representatives from the military administration to high-level meetings of the bloc. The second is the way that the meeting could undermine efforts by current ASEAN chair Indonesia to broker inclusive talks between the military junta, the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), and other important players – one of the goals of the Five-Point Consensus.
In a statement on Saturday, the NUG slammed the Thai initiative and argued, quite rightly, that “inviting the illegitimate junta to this discussion will not contribute to the resolution of Myanmar’s political crisis.”
In an open letter yesterday, representatives of 340 Myanmar civil society organizations concurred, describing the meeting as “a complete affront to the people of Myanmar who have sacrificed their lives to resist the Myanmar military’s attempt to seize power through years-long terror campaign against the whole nation.”
“This secretive initiative of the outgoing Thai Foreign Minister is in blatant contradiction with the ASEAN consensus on non-invitation of representatives of the military junta in high-level meetings,” it said.
The meeting has also been criticized, albeit in more veiled terms, by representatives of ASEAN nations that have declined to take part. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Friday that “it would be premature to re-engage with the junta at a summit level or even at a foreign minister level,” Reuters reported.
The Associated Press quoted a Malaysian statement emphasizing that the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus “remained ASEAN’s valid reference and mandate in addressing the Myanmar issue.” It added that it was “important that ASEAN demonstrates its unity in support of the ASEAN Chair and ASEAN processes which are in line with the mandate and decisions made by the ASEAN leaders.”
The timing of the meeting is also puzzling, given that Thailand’s caretaker government will give way to a new government in early August. Indeed, the progressive Move Forward Party, which won the general election on May 14, has promised to take a significantly more active and less accommodative approach to Myanmar, should it manage to form the next government.
Far from bringing ASEAN together, the Thai meeting has once again demonstrated the deep divisions within the organization, which some nations seemingly willing to accept the 2021 coup as a fait accompli and proceed on that basis, and others arguing that the bloc should take a harder line against the military government.
For this reason and others, little is likely to come out of the meeting. As the NUG noted, Myanmar’s military has shown little interest or intention in compromising with its opponents, and the only end to the conflict that it is willing to contemplate is its own victory. It is certainly questionable whether the goal of the Five-Point Consensus, an inclusive political dialogue involving “all parties” to the country’s conflict, is realistic. But speaking to just one side and undermining one of ASEAN’s few principled stands – its ban on junta representation at the bloc’s high-level meetings and summits – will certainly undermine what little chance there was of progress.
Any diplomatic initiatives aimed at ending the conflict in Myanmar are welcome – but only if they don’t complicate or undermine ongoing efforts to resolve the crisis.