In early August 2022, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM-55). The ASEAN Foreign Ministers discussed multiple issues, including developments in the political crisis in Myanmar and the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus, which was reached at the ASEAN Special Summit held two months after the coup d’état occurred in Myanmar in February 2021.
During the meeting, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers expressed concerns about the prolonged crisis and deep disappointment with the limited progress in carrying out the Five-Point Consensus, which calls for immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue among all parties concerned, the ASEAN Chair’s special envoy facilitating mediation of the dialogue process, humanitarian assistance, and a visit to Myanmar by the special envoy to meet all parties concerned. The ministers also noted a lack of commitment of the Naypyidaw authorities to the consensus.
Their negative sentiments are understandable. The sluggish implementation of the Five-Point Consensus has diminished ASEAN in the eyes of the clairvoyants both inside and outside the region. Critics may argue that ASEAN is not credible and able to manage its internal issues in order to exert its central role in shaping the regional architecture, especially in the face of emerging geostrategic challenges caused by the major power strategic competition and the rise of minilateral arrangements such as the Quad and AUKUS.
More seriously, the lack of progress on resolving Myanmar’s crisis poses a daunting obstacle for the association to accomplish the purposes and the principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter to build an ASEAN community that champions rules of law, good governance, democracy, and people-centered orientation.
Relatively Bold Actions
Although the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus is stagnating and does not meet the high expectations from the region, objectively speaking ASEAN has taken some relatively bold actions since the crisis broke out in February 2021.
ASEAN reacted swiftly. Immediately after the coup, ASEAN released a chairman’s statement, recalling the purposes and the principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter as mentioned above, and encouraging dialogue, reconciliation, and a return to normalcy in the interests of the people of Myanmar.
Owing to the rampant COVID-19 pandemic, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers had to hold an informal meeting virtually. They expressed concerns and called on all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, exercise utmost restraint, and seek a peaceful solution, through constructive dialogue, and practical reconciliation in the interests of the people of Myanmar and their livelihood.
As the situation in Myanmar continued to deteriorate and blatantly went against the ASEAN Charter, the ASEAN leaders had to gather at a Special Summit to make specific decisions, resulting in the Five-Point Consensus. The Myanmar junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, was invited to attend the summit. But his presence was not taken to mean that he was recognized as Myanmar’s head of state at the meeting. He listened and heeded the decision from the ASEAN leaders.
After an intensive consultation in ASEAN and seeking consensus from Myanmar, ASEAN appointed Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Yusof of Brunei Darussalam among four candidates as the ASEAN Chair’s special envoy on Myanmar at the AMM-54 in August 2021. The appointment was the first step to carry out the Five-Point Consensus and it received strong support from the ASEAN dialogue partners and international community, including the U.N. secretary general and a large group of countries. The world was watching closely because ASEAN is considered as the most appropriate mediator that can help Myanmar to overcome the crisis.
However, there was no significant progress afterward with regard to proceeding with the visit to Myanmar by the special envoy, as the junta was reluctant to receive him.
To push the junta to implement the Five-Point Consensus and restore some of ASEAN’s credibility, the bloc had to adopt a more hardline stance. It decided to only invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to attend the ASEAN Summit in October 2021. Since then, Min Aung Hlaing and his foreign minister have been absent from ASEAN meetings, and that will continue to be the case at the upcoming ASEAN meetings.
That decision was unprecedented. As opined by a pundit, it is the most severe sanction that ASEAN had placed on a member state since the association’s establishment over five decades ago. It sent a clear message that the junta could not use Min Aung Hlaing’s presence at the ASEAN Summit and related meetings to suggest that the international community recognizes the junta’s legitimacy in Myanmar.
Its exclusion from ASEAN meeting was really a slap to the junta. Thus, it had to change its approach toward implementation of the Five-Point Consensus. It gradually opened for the special envoy under Cambodia’s chairmanship – Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn – to conduct two working trips to Myanmar in March and late June to early July 2022, which focused on three priorities: cessation of violence, constructive dialogue, and humanitarian assistance.
Prak Sokhonn was allowed to meet with more stakeholders in Myanmar. He held talks with Min Aung Hlaing and his foreign minister, the chairman of the National Solidarity and Peace-making Negotiation Committee, and the Myanmar Task Force on ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance. The special envoy also met with representatives of seven ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) who signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the junta in 2015 and seven political parties who won seats at the 2020 election. They discussed the approaches to engage all parties concerned in the NCA.
However, Prak Sokhonn was denied access to the leaders of the Myanmar’s elected civilian government, particularly imprisoned State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is considered one of the most important players in Myanmar politics, peace, and reconciliation.
Meanwhile, Prak Sokhonn also discussed the delivery of humanitarian assistance in a safe, timely, and impartial manner, and engagement of the U.N. Specialized Agencies, international nongovernment organizations, and the local authorities in humanitarian work, including joint need assessment in hard-to-reach areas.
Nevertheless, there were reports of continued violence and deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Myanmar. Fighting between the junta and the EAOs and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) continued across the country. More seriously, the junta’s execution of four opposition activists just a week ahead of the AMM-55 was a major setback to the special envoy’s efforts to facilitate progress on the Five-Point Consensus.
Prak Sokhonn is planning a third visit to Myanmar in September or October 2022 to meet all parties concerned, especially Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD). It is not clear whether his efforts would be successful.
It is easy to chastise ASEAN for not having done more. But the reality is that this crisis could not be solved overnight no matter what. The conflict is not merely about the coup itself, or issues between the junta and the civilian elected government. It involves long-standing factors in terms of history, politics, culture, and particularly ethnic tensions. Therefore, a completely peaceful solution to the Myanmar crisis can only be achieved once all parties concerned in Myanmar gather around a table for dialogues and negotiations.
Tasks for the Succeeding Special Envoys
Based on such a gradual progress, the special envoys under the following ASEAN chairmanships must try their utmost to revive ASEAN credibility through advancing its mediating role, helping all parties concerned in Myanmar to build confidence, promote inclusive dialogue, reduce escalation, provide humanitarian assistance to the people in need, and create a favorable environment for peaceful negotiations. That is an important and laborious responsibility, which needs principles, a good plan, competence, wisdom, and tact as well as deeper empathy, understanding, and stronger support from all stakeholders either inside and outside the region.