ASEAN Calls Again for End to Myanmar Violence As Conflicts Flare

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

ASEAN Calls Again for End to Myanmar Violence As Conflicts Flare

Foreign ministers from the Southeast Asian bloc have spoken out following the fall of Myawaddy on the Thai border.

ASEAN Calls Again for End to Myanmar Violence As Conflicts Flare
Credit: Photo 69139705 | Asean © Kitti Kahotong |

Southeast Asian foreign ministers have again urged an “immediate” end to the violence in Myanmar, after recent eruptions of fighting in the west and southeast of the country. In a statement yesterday, foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said that they were “deeply concerned over the recent escalation of conflicts,” particularly in Kayin (Karen) and Rakhine states.

“We urge all parties for an immediate cessation of violence and to exercise utmost restraint, to uphold international humanitarian law, and to take all the necessary measures to defuse tensions and to ensure the protection and safety of all civilians,” it said.

The statement comes at a time of intensified offensives by the many opponents of the military council that installed itself in power after the coup of February 2021. Last week, the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) announced that it had captured the town of Myawaddy, an important trade hub on the Thai border in Kayin State in southeastern Myanmar, after a months-long offensive. While control of the town still appears to be contested by the junta, the latter’s potential complete loss of the third-busiest land border crossing in Myanmar and the largest of its six crossings with Thailand, would be a humiliating defeat for the military junta that seized power in February 2021.

Recent months have also seen steady gains by the Arakan Army in Rakhine State in the country’s west. These have prompted junta artillery and air strikes that have killed scores of civilians and displaced thousands more. The junta has also reportedly deployed Russian-made MiG-29 jets and Mi-35 helicopter gunships against KNU positions around Myawaddy in the wake of its reversals there.

In the statement, ASEAN foreign ministers also called for fresh efforts to address the increasingly dire humanitarian consequences of the renewed fighting, and repeated its call for “an inclusive national dialogue toward a durable and comprehensive political solution in Myanmar.” The statement finished by affirming ASEAN’s commitment to its stagnant Five-Point Consensus peace plan, and its intention to help Myanmar “to achieve an inclusive and durable peaceful resolution to the crisis that is Myanmar-owned and led.”

While ASEAN has addressed the Myanmar conflict at every major meeting since the coup, standalone ASEAN statements on the conflict have been relatively infrequent. The most likely reason that this one was issued is the fact that the conflict in Kayin State has come uncomfortably to impinging on the territory of an ASEAN member state: Thailand. The fighting prompted Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-nukara to pay a visit last week to Mae Sot, the Thai town directly across from Myawaddy, where the Thai military has placed units on alert in order to protect Thai airspace from incursions.

However, despite the worsening situation on the ground, there is little in this statement that extends beyond the Five-Point Consensus. Indeed, the statement more or less replicates its calls for an immediate end to the violence in Myanmar, “inclusive” political dialogue involving “all parties” to the conflict, and the provision of humanitarian assistance, via ASEAN’s AHA Center, to populations in need.

From not long after the Five-Point Consensus was agreed at a special summit in Jakarta in April 2021, ASEAN has failed to make much headway in implementing its terms. The primary reason has been the obduracy of the military junta, which agreed to the terms of the Consensus but has largely ignored it in practice. Since then, the ASEAN peace plan has become ever more abstracted from the reality on the ground, where the junta and its opponents are now locked in a zero-sum struggle for the future of the country.

In an article published yesterday by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, former Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah argued that the Consensus “requires an update, given the escalation of violence and the military’s continued atrocities and intransigence.”

Saifuddin, who was one of the most outspoken ASEAN foreign ministers, during his short tenure as Malaysia’s top diplomat, argued that the Southeast Asian bloc needed to step away from treating the military junta as the default governing authority and adopt an approach involving “inclusive consultation and agreement” with the National Unity Government, the National Unity Consultative Council, and other representatives of the resistance. “The real way forward is to work on a framework that has a clear endgame and to lay out the matters and processes required to achieve that,” he wrote.

While such a change in approach is probably necessary, yesterday’s statement offers no clues as to when that might be, or how much further the conditions inside the country would have to deteriorate for ASEAN to take such a step.