Can a divided ASEAN solve the Myanmar crisis?
This article is authored by Cchavi Vasisht, research associate, Centre for Neighbourhood Studies, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.
The world is well aware of the ongoing political and socio-economic crisis in Myanmar as a result of military takeover in February 2021. Though the military predicted that it would crush the opposition forces and establish their rule by conducting the elections again, the military has faced tough resistance from the side of the opposition forces and other Ethnic Armed Organisations. As soon as the military took over power and arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) came to the forefront with the Five Point Consensus (FPC) to bring normalcy in Myanmar. While ASEAN received international recognition for its role to restore normalcy in Myanmar, it has failed to achieve its goal due to the lack of commitment by Myanmar generals towards the implementation of FPC and differences within the grouping on how to deal with the military leaders and opposition forces. In the past few months, ASEAN has become more conscious of its divided approach towards Myanmar.
As the chairmanship of ASEAN will be shifted from Indonesia to Laos for the year 2024, this article reflects on the role of ASEAN in solving the ongoing crisis in Myanmar as it continues to pose a serious challenge to ASEAN’s unity, centrality and credibility. Before evaluating the progress made under Indonesian chairmanship, we must review of ASEAN’s role under the chairmanship of Brunei and Cambodia. We must also explore the responses by other ASEAN members, Malaysia, Singapore and especially Thailand, who have adopted different approaches to the current situation in Myanmar.
After the military takeover, ASEAN adopted the Five Point Consensus in April 2021. As Brunei held the ASEAN chairmanship, it appointed Erywan Yusof as a special envoy. In August 2021 he committed to visit Myanmar in October 2021, but later cancelled his visit as he was denied a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. He, thereby, adopted a low profile and achieved little progress in implementation of the FPC. However, for the first time at the 38th and 39th ASEAN summits in October 2021, Min Aung Hlaing was not allowed to attend the meetings as Myanmar representative. Instead, ASEAN leaders invited Chan Aye, the military’s foreign ministry permanent secretary, as the country’s non-political representative. However, Chan Aye did not attend the summit.
Cambodia took over as the chair for the year 2022. Prak Sokhonn, Cambodian foreign minister was appointed as ASEAN’s special envoy on Myanmar, during which he visited the country twice, March and June 2022. Before the visit by the special envoy, Cambodia's Prime Minister (PM) Hun Sen met the Myanmar military’s foreign affairs minister, Wunna Maung Lwin in December 2021 and then in January 2022, he visited Myanmar and urged Myanmar's military ruler to allow a visit by a special envoy of ASEAN. In March 2022, special envoy Sokhonn visited Myanmar but did not make any significant breakthroughs. Though the visit was the first by the ASEAN representative, which opened a window for dialogue for engaging with military leaders and ensuring implementation of FPC. In the second visit from June 30 to July 2, Sokhonn met senior general Min Aung Hlaing to discuss Myanmar’s progress in implementing the FPC. Sokhonn also met with other representatives and Uko Ko Hlaing, the SAC-appointed minister for international cooperation and chairman of the Myanmar Task Force on ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance. Additionally, as part of ASEAN’s humanitarian efforts, Cambodia dispatched teams to administer Covid-19 vaccines to Myanmar. Sokhonn was also appreciative of the State Administration Council (SAC) declaration of Myanmar’s Year for Peace in 2022. This was understood as a step to reduce violence and bring normalcy in the country. During his visit, he also held talks with the representatives of seven ethnic armed organisations, which have signed the NCA with the SAC. However, he was denied a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi due to unspecified “judicial procedures”.
It must also be noted that Myanmar was disallowed from only ASEAN summits, but continued to attend other meetings. For instance, a Myanmar delegation attended the 19th ASEAN Military Intelligence Meeting and the 40th ASEANAPOL Conference held in Cambodia in 2022. Moreover, the Myanmar military and Russia continued to co-chair the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting - Plus Experts' Working Group on Counter Terrorism. Concerns were raised when Myanmar, being the co-chair, included a section titled “Terrorist News”, in which it labelled Myanmar’s NUG, Committee Representing Peoples ’Hluttaw (CRPH) and People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) as “terrorist”.
Additionally, Laos handed over the ASEAN Air Chiefs Conference chairmanship to the Myanmar military. These engagements raise doubts about the collective role of ASEAN to pressure Myanmar military to implement FPC.
Earlier, ASEAN's divided stand was highlighted during the adoption of the United Nations (UN) resolution in July 2021, on the call of imposing an arms embargo on Myanmar. ASEAN countries failed to put forward a united stand. While Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam supported the resolution; Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand abstained from the resolution. Myanmar’s representative, Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun, who is a civilian government representative, also supported the resolution.
However, ASEAN also took strong steps to ensure the Myanmar military takes course to the FPC. Under Cambodian chairmanship, Myanmar military Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin was barred from attending 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and other forum meetings. Though the invitation was sent, they had asked the military to send a “non-political representative” instead. But Sokhonn called Sen Gen Aung Hlaing to exchange views on situational updates and challenges in implementing FPC. As the Myanmar military failed to implement the provision of FPC, the members admitted that "little progress" has been made in implementing the FPC, during the 40 and 41 ASEAN summits held in Cambodia. During the meetings concerns were raised about the situation in Myanmar and the 25 July execution of four democracy activists. They decided to follow a timeline to support the peace plan. It is also important to note that Cambodia’s special envoy, cancelled his third announced trip to the country, which reflected growing tensions between ASEAN and Myanmar's military regime.
Another point of contention emerged as ASEAN announced during the meeting that ASEAN would initiate talks with the opposition groups. However, the Myanmar military slammed ASEAN’s decision to engage with opposition groups, which include NUG and EAOs. The military blamed the lack of progress on the pandemic and was hindered by armed resistance movements that it calls terrorists. In contrast, the NUG released a statement in support of ASEAN’s decision and stated that there is a need to reframe or expand the 5PC. At present, ASEAN as an organisation has not engaged officially with NUG or CRPH, but individual countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia have held talks. The next section talks about the role of Indonesia as ASEAN’s chair.
Indonesia took over chairmanship in November 2022 with an aim to focus on the theme “Asean Matters: Epicentrum of Growth”. It was believed that Indonesia would help restore democracy in Myanmar as it had the experience and was successful in beginning its democratic journey as stated by President Widodo. Indonesia followed the path of previous two chairs and barred Myanmar military representatives from attending ASEAN summits in July and September 2023 and also few other meetings such as ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF).
However, it is interesting to highlight that the Myanmar representative defence attache attended a five-day ASEAN Solidarity Exercise held in Indonesia in September 2023. These were non-combat exercises, in which forces were trained in areas such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, rescue operations and joint maritime patrols. But on the other hand, when Myanmar hosted Air force chiefs from ASEAN members in September 2023, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore did not send their representatives to attend the meeting. Air force chiefs from Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam attended. In the past week, there were reports that Indonesian companies under DEFEND ID were supplying arms to the Myanmar military. But the Ministry of State-Owned Enterprises (Kementerian BUMN) and DEFEND ID both denied any involvement in export activity to Myanmar following the military takeover.
Coming back to the progress made during meetings and summits under Indonesian chairmanship, two major meetings were hosted. First in July 2023 and second in September 2023. At the ASEAN’s Foreign Ministers Meeting, held from 11–12 July 2023, a joint communique was released which reiterated the need to maintain 5PC as ASEAN’s “main reference to address the political crisis in Myanmar.” The communique expressed appreciation for Indonesia as chair, which intensified engagement with all stakeholders in Myanmar in order to arrange “an inclusive dialogue” for “a comprehensive political solution.”
However, it was during these meetings that ASEAN’s divided stand became visible. Thailand briefed ASEAN members on its consultative dialogues with Myanmar military representatives along with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and Track 1.5 format dialogues, with these and other neighbouring countries including India, China and Bangladesh.
Most importantly, what came as a major astonishment was the meeting between the Thai deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Pramudwinai claimed that Suu Kyi favoured dialogue with the military. Thailand also hosted the BIMSTEC foreign ministers' meeting and Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) meeting in Bangkok. This laid the ground for clear division in ASEAN’s approach towards the Myanmar crisis.
Again, at the 43rd ASEAN Summit held in Indonesia from 05-07 September 2023, ASEAN released a statement condemning the violence and urging the Myanmar military as well as all related parties concerned to de-escalate violence and stop targeted attacks on civilians. The statement emphasised that military leaders must ensure implementation of ASEAN’s FPC and engage in “constructive dialogue” with other stakeholders. The members also released an assessment recognising the need for a specific timeline with practical and measurable indicators to support the FPC. However, the Myanmar military rejected both the statements as “one-sided.” In response, Myanmar’s military-led foreign ministry condemned the ASEAN for not mentioning its alleged efforts to restore democracy by “peaceful means”. Myanmar also accused ASEAN of issuing country specific paragraphs which contradicts the bloc’s principle of non-interference in the country's internal affairs.
Additionally, at the latest round of meetings, ASEAN leaders took two steps regarding ASEAN chairmanship. One, the leaders denied Myanmar its turn in the rotating presidency in 2026. Second, Marsudi announced that from now a “troika” of States would lead the bloc on the Myanmar issue. As Laos is going to be the next chair, the preceding chair, Indonesia and the succeeding chair, Malaysia, these three would work together for implementation of FPC in Myanmar. While this troika system of dealing with the crisis in Myanmar is seen to be a positive step as it relives Laos from taking decisions alone and thereby be free from external pressures, it also opens up the opportunity to assert more pressure on military leaders as both Indonesia and Malaysia have taken strong stand against the military rule in Myanmar.
It must also be noted that as ASEAN chair, Indonesia has also held around 110 meetings (virtual or in-person) with Myanmar’s opposing stakeholders, such as the NUG, its PDF and allied ethnic armed organisations. Though ASEAN as a regional organisation does not recognise NUG or CRPH, these engagements are a step towards an inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders.
Malaysia has been a strong defender of democracy and critical of military takeover in Myanmar. Malaysian PM Anwar Ibrahim issued a strong call for ASEAN members to take measures to pressure Myanmar's military to end "atrocities" against its own people. Last year, Malaysia also announced that it will not support the Myanmar military’s planned election in 2023, becoming the first among the ASEAN to reject the polls. Earlier in 2023, Malaysian foreign minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Abdullah proposed that ASEAN must engage informally with the NUG to discuss humanitarian aid. He also became the first minister from ASEAN to publicly meet a NUG minister.
Singapore, though has not severed ties with the military leaders, it has taken a “principled position” against the military’s use of lethal force against unarmed civilians. Singapore has continued its economic relations. Foreign affairs minister Vivian Balakrishnan in a response to a parliamentary question stated that total bilateral trade between the two countries in 2022 amounted to $5.8 billion and thereby Singapore has not imposed a general trade embargo on Myanmar. However, he said Singapore does not authorise the transfer of dual-use items of which it was accused in the UN Report. Balakrishnan also said as Myanmar is on the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force, financial institutions in Singapore have been applying enhanced diligence for Myanmar-linked customers and transactions that present higher risks. Therefore, Singapore continued to maintain trade ties with Myanmar and has restricted export of arms to the military.
Sharing a land border of around 2400 km with Myanmar, Thailand has been active in engaging with military outside the ASEAN framework, thereby creating a dent in ASEAN’s collective approach. Thailand hosted an informal meeting with all ASEAN foreign ministers (including Myanmar) to discuss the Myanmar peace process in June 2023. Thai deputy PM and foreign minister Don Pramudwinai sent the invite to his ASEAN counterparts to ‘fully re-engage’ the generals of Myanmar. While representatives from Myanmar along with Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam attended the meeting; Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore did not send their representatives. The foreign minister of Myanmar also attended the MGC and BIMSTEC meetings in Bangkok just after the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in July 2023. This was the first time Indian foreign minister, S Jaishankar also met the Myanmar minister.
Similarly, in December 2022, Thailand hosted a consultative dialogue with Myanmar military representatives headed by foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin, which was attended by Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. But Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines declined invitations to the meeting. Most importantly as discussed earlier, one of the major shifts away was the meeting between Don Pramudwinai and Suu Kyi outside the ASEAN framework. None of the ASEAN’s special envoys were allowed to meet her in these years and the details of the meetings were also not disclosed.
Furthermore, Thailand reinvigorated diplomatic relations with Myanmas as it appointed its first special envoy for Myanmar, Pornpimol Kanchanalak in April 2023. Even Thailand's ambassador to Myanmar, Mongkol Visitstump, presented his credentials to the State Administration Council and PM Min Aung Hlaing in December 2022 and discussed a wide range of issues in bilateral ties including trade, investment and tourism. Thailand, on the other hand, also participated in the 34th meeting of the Thailand-Myanmar Regional Border Committee hosted by Myanmar in July 2023.
However, the close relations are also affected because of the ongoing crisis. Because of the ongoing attacks many instances have been reported where either Myanmar military or bordering EAOs have intruded Thailand airspace. For instance, in July 2023, a MiG-29 from the Myanmar Air Force intruded into Thai airspace while Karen EAO. In response, the Royal Thai Air Force initiated two F-16 fighter jets to patrol the border district. Following this, Myanmar’s Air Force Chief, General Htun Aung, apologised to his Thai counterpart. As a result of attacks from both sides, many people have tried to cross borders. However, Thailand has refused to accept them and did not open any temporary safe zones across the borders. As the new PM Srettha Thavisin takes over the seat in Thailand, it would be interesting to see how he navigates Thailand’s approach to Myanmar as well as divisions within ASEAN.
ASEAN has been criticised for failing to push the military in restoring democracy and ceasing violence. Lately, international organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed disappointment and failure of ASEAN’s FPC. To some extent, ASEAN has been asked to scrap the FPC by the Fortify Rights. Myanmar’s foreign ministry also issued repetitive statements objecting to a reference in the ASEAN joint statement about the “lack of progress” in implementing the 5PC and stated that pressure from ASEAN to implement a peace plan would “create more negative implications.”
However, a slight diplomatic success can be seen in incidents where the military reduced the term of Aung San Suu Kyi by five years and have repeatedly granted amnesty to prisoners. But these are mere symbolic moves to reduce pressure, it is more of regional show of efforts being taken, and, in reality, the military still disagrees with the implementation of FPC, which calls for inclusive dialogue and release of all political principles.
The statements released after the latest round of ASEAN meetings have “reaffirmed” ASEAN’s position on the FPC to remain a main reference to address the political crisis in Myanmar. These statements condemn the violence and air strikes, and call for inclusive dialogue within Myanmar. ASEAN members also recognise that the FPC has not been implemented, and therefore mentioned the need for a comprehensive review of the FPC implementation which will be discussed at the upcoming 43rd ASEAN Summit.
To conclude, it must be remembered that Myanmar remains one of the core members of ASEAN despite being barred from summits and meetings. For years, ASEAN has worked on the principle of consensus and non-interference. And it is not the first time the regional organisation is facing a crisis emanating from a single country. To address the Myanmar crisis, a divided ASEAN is only further going to complicate the situation and give mixed signals in dealing with military generals. While Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore have called for the restoration of the democratic process, but the rest have continued engagements with the military generals which gives them certain legitimacy to continue with their own tactics. In this background, the decision to form a troika of states in dealing with the Myanmar crisis is a step in the right direction. In the next year as Laos chairs the ASEAN, it will be accompanied by Indonesia and Malaysia to address the crisis in Myanmar. Both these countries have responded strongly to military actions and have called for an inclusive dialogue along with NUG and other stakeholders. However, it also means that there is an implicit acceptance of the fact that the crisis in Myanmar is not going to end soon.
Therefore, apart from ensuring an inclusive political dialogue, ASEAN has the responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance for the people in need. While one cannot bring back normalcy by isolating the country, one needs a comprehensive approach to ensure an inclusive dialogue. The military leaders in Myanmar must be pushed for a consultative dialogue with all stakeholders, especially the NUG and major EAOs, so that peace and stability can be restored.
This article is authored by Cchavi Vasisht, research associate, Centre for Neighbourhood Studies, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.