How can ASEAN Work with Dialogue Partners to Improve Myanmar’s Deteriorating Situation?


ASEAN should adopt a piecemeal approach in engaging dialogue partners to collaborate on matters pertaining to the 5-point consensus.

ASEAN at the Fore Front in Resolving the Myanmar Crisis

It has been more than two years since the Burmese junta organized a coup that toppled Myanmar’s democratically elected government. The instalment of an unconstitutional caretaker government is widely regarded as an existential threat to southeast Asian regionalism.

As such, ASEAN has established the five-point consensus, calling for violence cessation, open dialogues, humanitarian assistance, appointment of special envoy and access to all relevant parties in the conflict. ASEAN has barred Myanmar from dispatching political appointees to ASEAN meetings. Personalized diplomacy is also utilized. However, Hun Sen’s cowboy diplomacy and Thailand’s informal talks with the Burmese junta failed to produce any diplomatic breakthroughs. With the exception of Prak Sokhonn’s appointment as ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar, there has been little progress throughout the 5-point consensus.

At the recent foreign ministers’ retreat, ASEAN acknowledged Myanmar’s worsening situation. To mitigate this, ASEAN plans to engage relevant parties to give the implementation of the 5-point consensus a harder push. But how should ASEAN work with relevant parties to materialize this goal given that not all of them are on the same page with ASEAN on the Myanmar issue?

This paper proposes how ASEAN can engage dialogue partners to bring about progress in the implementation of the 5-point consensus in Myanmar.

Establish Deeper Coordination with U.S and EU on the Myanmar Issue

As violence escalates unbated in Myanmar, U.S has sanctioned various entities involved in the coup, officials from the state administration council and those personally connected to Min Aung Hlaing. Recently, Washington announced fresh sanctions on Myanmar, mainly targeting entities from the state-owned energy sectors who financially backs the junta regime.

Likewise, EU has also imposed sanctions on Myanmar. This includes asset freezes, travel bans, and prohibition of all EU-related units in providing any forms of funds to any entities connected to the military junta. To date, EU’s sanctions on Myanmar targets up to 84 individuals and 11 entities connected to the junta regime.

These sanctions, however extensive in its scope, are executed purely on the basis of Myanmar’s gross violation of democratic norms. In no way are these sanctions implemented to give direct support towards ASEAN’s push for the implementation of 5-point consensus in Myanmar. Washington and Brussels did not intent for their targeted sanctions designed specifically to pressure Myanmar towards conforming to the 5-point consensus. This is not surprising given that both U.S and EU perceive ASEAN’s push for the implementation of 5-point consensus in Myanmar as an engagement of undemocratic regimes and therefore had no political appetite to be associated with it.

All this while, ASEAN constrained by its institutional norms and traditions, can only utilize non-coercive means to push for the implementation of the 5-point consensus in Myanmar. If ASEAN can convince both U.S and EU into re-designing existing and prospective sanctions in a manner that puts coercive pressure on the Burmese junta towards conformity to the 5-point consensus, ASEAN’s push for the implementation of 5-point consensus in Myanmar will certainly gain significant strength.

But how can ASEAN achieve this? During the 1997 Cambodia coup, the Friends of Cambodia (FOC) group which consist partly of U.S and EU have endorsed ASEAN’s diplomatic lead on the Cambodian crisis. The FOC then undertook special efforts to structure their sanction packages to pressure Cambodia’s Hun Sen on accepting ASEAN’s terms of conditions. Consequently, ASEAN and FOC managed to restore peace in Cambodia. ASEAN can leverage on the success of this highly relatable historical precedent to convince both U.S and EU into coordinating their sanctions in a way that exerts pressures on the Burmese junta towards conforming ASEAN’s 5-point consensus. Moreover, U.S and EU are full dialogue partners, ASEAN can utilize regional forums and special summits to engage both parties on this matter. As a stable southeast Asia is within the interest of U.S and EU, ASEAN’s chances to succeed in establishing deeper coordination with U.S and EU on the Myanmar issue should not be underestimated.

Room for Collaboration between ASEAN and ‘Reluctant’ Dialogue Partners

The international response towards the Myanmar crisis varies widely. While some states primarily the U.S and EU adopts a hard-lined approach in sanctioning the junta regime, other states differ in their response.

Australia and Japan have openly condemned the extrajudicial killings in Myanmar. Japan and Australia also froze new developmental aid and suspended bilateral defence cooperation respectively. However, both countries were hesitant towards increasing pressures on Myanmar and joining the U.S and EU in imposing targeted sanctions against entities linked to the Burmese junta. Dr Daisuke Akimoto from the Institute for Security and Development Policy argued that the reluctance of Canberra and Tokyo can be attributed to geopolitical reasons. Strong sanctions will likely thrust Myanmar further towards the Sino-Russo sphere. Despite Australia and Japan’s reluctance to further impose punitive pressures on the Burmese junta towards making progress on the 5-point consensus, there is still room for ASEAN to work with Canberra and Tokyo on the Myanmar issue.

One of the core areas which the 5-point consensus stipulates is the provision of humanitarian aid. Given the hefty list of humanitarian crisis to deal with, the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA) is overstretched. AHA is unlikely to have sufficient resources to address the escalating violence in Myanmar. Given Japan and Australia strong support towards ASEAN’s emphasis on the importance of humanitarian aid in resolving the crisis, ASEAN should work with both countries to further strengthen AHA’s capacity or set up new collaborative channels that provide humanitarian aid to Myanmar. Once there is a diplomatic breakthrough that allows inflow of humanitarian aid into Myanmar, the concerned parties will be better prepared to deal with the humanitarian urgency.

On the other hand, there are states who adopts ‘business as usual’ attitudes towards Myanmar. China and Russia refused to condemn and impose sanctions on the Burmese junta. Moreover, since the February coup, both Beijing and Moscow continue to sell deadly arms and bolster diplomatic support for the Burmese junta.

However, the fact that both states have also pressed for inclusive dialogues in Myanmar cannot be simply dismissed. In his visit to Myanmar, then Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi made it clear to his Burmese counterparts that Myanmar should engage with all relevant parties to end the escalating civil violence and bring about reconciliation. Similarly, Russia despite seeing the Myanmar crisis as an internal affair has on several occasions called for peaceful dialogues between competing parties in Myanmar.

China and Russia might have chosen engagement with the Burmese junta but ultimately these states have interests in bringing about violence cessation and inclusive dialogues in Myanmar which are exactly points of convergence with ASEAN’s 5-point consensus. To date, ASEAN have yet to engage Russia and China on the Myanmar issue. ASEAN can capitalize on China and Russia complementary interests to bring about a collective position on pressuring the Burmese junta towards violence cessation and holding of inclusive dialogue. A united front will exert a harder push on the Burmese junta towards resolving Myanmar’s chaos.

In addition, with China and Russia’s considerable influence in Myanmar, ASEAN can engage both Beijing and Moscow to play ‘bridge-making’ roles whereby they simultaneously engage with the Burmese junta, the National Unity Government (NUG), anti-coup fighters, and other concerned stakeholders on a bilateral basis and to help facilitate conditions for an inclusive dialogue. ASEAN has good chances to tap on China and Russia for this task given that both Beijing and Moscow have large economic interests to protect in Myanmar.  

ASEAN must act in a steadfast manner in engaging its dialogue partners to push for the implementation of 5-point consensus in Myanmar. If Myanmar’s worsening situation is allowed to spiral uncontrollably, the structural integrity of ASEAN will be severely compromised.   

Anthony Toh Han Yang
Anthony Toh Han Yang
Anthony Toh Han Yang is a graduate of International Relations, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research interests include ASEAN and China affairs. He may be contacted at atoh019[at]


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