The 40th and 41st ASEAN summits, as well as related summits, were held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from November 8 to 13, 2022. Myanmar’s crisis hits the top of the agenda. Myanmar’s chair sat empty at November 11’s meeting. The move is a bold decision for the ASEAN to exclude the Myanmar Junta from attending the summit. Though great power politics, “remote diplomacy” of the ASEAN member states and Junta’s arrogance to bring peace and stability to Myanmar downplayed to find sustainable solution to the Myanmar crisis, the release of around 6000 political prisoners, ASEAN’s engagement with the NUG and the opening of office by NUG in Washington provides some positive changes to the ongoing Myanmar crisis.
Myanmar politics is turbulent with the clash between democracy, civil war and military rule. Though a dim of hope was aroused in 2011 with the landslide victory of the NLD government, however, the hope was eventually shattered with the military coup in February 2021.
The nine ASEAN leaders and Myanmar junta chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, agreed to five-point consensus (5PCs) at a summit in Jakarta on April 24, 2021 immediately after overthrowing the democratically elected NLD government who achieved another absolute victory in the November 2020 election. The 5PCs include an immediate cessation of violence in the country; dialogue among all parties; the appointment of a special envoy; ASEAN humanitarian assistance; and the special envoy’s visit to Myanmar to meet with all parties. However, Min Aung Hlaing has defied each point of the consensus, while also conducting a brutal nationwide crackdown aimed at suppressing the millions of people who oppose the military rule.
Two days after the consensus agreement, the junta reversed its support, stating that it would consider “suggestions made by ASEAN leaders when the situation returns to stability.” Instead of halting attacks, the junta increased them. Since the coup, the Junta has committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, including mass killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
According to AAPP documentation, almost 2,500 people have been killed by security forces, including 250 children and over 30,000 have been arbitrarily detained or arrested to date. More than 1,443,000 people have been internally displaced as a result of the military’s expansion of abusive operations in ethnic minority areas (as of November 01, 2022). Instead of following the consensus and allowing aid delivery, the junta has purposefully prevented humanitarian aid from reaching that in need as a form of collective punishment.
Despite the international community allowing ASEAN to take the lead in attempting to resolve the brutal Myanmar crisis, the country has been stacked in a series of civil wars. ASEAN has been widely criticized for mishandling its response.
Meanwhile, the five-point consensus has become a pretext for governments such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and European Union member states to postpone real action in the name of waiting for ASEAN leadership. The junta has taken advantage of the international community’s deference to the regional bloc, which has a long history of failing to fulfill its responsibility to protect the people of Southeast Asia under its noninterference and consensus principles.
ASEAN heads of govt. warned Myanmar Junta to take measurable progress on the 5-point consensus. The leaders concluded with a need for concrete, practical and measurable indicators with a specific timeline for the 5PCs. The Junta will remain banned from the bloc’s top meetings. Most importantly, ASEAN leaders agreed to engage with the National Unity Government (NUG) to seek ways out of the crisis which is a new dimension to the crisis. NUG is the shadow government of Myanmar who is confronting with the Myanmar in establishing the civilian governance through people’s movement and world recognition. However, a leaked ASEAN document proposes to maintain the status quo in Myanmar through maintaining the Myanmar junta’s full participation in all ASEAN meetings apart from summits and foreign minister’s meetings.
A renowned author, Dr. Azeem Ibrahim argued that “ASEAN believes remote diplomacy is better than supporting the civilian population fighting against the regime.” The statement denotes the lack of generosity of the ASEAN leaders in actively engaging in resolving the Myanmar crisis. Besides, there are diverse allegiances of its member countries. For example, Vietnam and the Philippines have been locked in territorial disputes with Beijing over the South China Sea, but ASEAN has stalled in reaching an agreement on a promised “Code of Conduct” with the Chinese government. Its main challenge is to manage escalating tensions between the United States and China. Thailand and the Philippines are treaty allies of the US, and Vietnam counts the US as a security guarantor, while Cambodia and Laos are considered Beijing’s closest partners. All these clash of interests also contribute in handicapping the ASEAN from taking real steps against the military regime in Myanmar.
Though the ASEAN summit and their relatively hard stand will not bring overnight changes to the military rule in Myanmar. However, the decision to release 700 prisoners along with four foreigners including Australian advisor of jailed NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi on November 17 is clearly evident with reducing the mounting pressure from home and abroad and to get some sympathy.
On November 12, the UN chief said, implementation of ASEAN’s 5PCs is a key way to establish stability and peace. US Department of State’s Deputy Assistant Secretary assured that, US will continue to support ASEAN in ensuring the implementation of the 5PCs to resolve the political impasse in Myanmar. Analysts believe regional leaders must take more action to resolve the Myanmar problem.
The coup has resulted in an ongoing humanitarian disaster, and ASEAN has been under fire from the outside world for not doing enough to end or even sufficiently condemn the conflict. Analysts believe it’s notable that the Myanmar military representatives were barred from this conference, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate ASEAN will take significant measures to address the delicate issue.
In order to support the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in implementing the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) on Myanmar, which is currently stalled, the United Nations (UN) must adopt complementary mechanisms and ensure that there are no military representatives present throughout the UN system.
In sum, in line with the Elaine Pearson, the acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch, “The ASEAN countries leading on Myanmar—Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore—should immediately alter their course to focus on protecting people’s rights and freedoms rather than helping the junta remain in power.”