Cambodia's Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) special envoy to Myanmar, speaks during a press conference at Phnom Penh international airport on 23 March 2022. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP)

ASEAN Special Envoy in Myanmar: Too Little, Too Late?

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The recent visit to Myanmar by ASEAN’s Special Envoy has been disappointing. It might be time to reconsider the grouping’s five-point consensus.

The long-awaited visit to Myanmar by ASEAN’s Special Envoy is turning out to be a damp squib. Nearly a year since the grouping laid down its five-point consensus (5PC) on Myanmar, there appears to be little traction. Even before he had set foot in Naypyidaw, the visit by Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn was already derided by opposition groups in and outside Myanmar. 

Despite efforts by Brunei, the ASEAN Chair for 2021, and peer pressure within the grouping (by member states taking a tougher stance, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore), ASEAN’s pursuit of the 5PC is still attracting more bricks than bouquets.

To his credit, Prak can well argue that he has been dealt a weak hand. ASEAN is increasingly divided along major power fault lines, such that unity, or even a facade of it, is hard to maintain. He carries a heavy responsibility, as ASEAN Foreign Ministers at their recent Retreat last month mandated that the ASEAN Special Envoy ‘fully implement’ the 5PC. This mandate includes the requirement to engage with all parties concerned (in the Myanmar crisis).

Further compounding the challenge, Prak’s visit took place in the wake of the controversial visit by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen in January, which was seen as conferring legitimacy to Myanmar’s junta. A month after that trip, Cambodia’s ‘go-getter’ leader appeared downbeat on this issue, expressing frustration and throwing in the towel on solving Myanmar’s political crisis. Mr Hun Sen’s suggestion that the next ASEAN Chair ‘take care of the issue’ might be a signal that the Cambodian Chair will go through the motions this year regarding the Myanmar crisis. Apart from the need to present itself as a responsible Chair, Cambodia may have little or no inherent interest in the democratisation of Myanmar or to engage actively with its civil society. 

Cambodia seems to have chosen to set a lower bar for this introductory visit to Myanmar by the Special Envoy. The language explaining his visit uses softer targets such as ‘creating a favourable condition leading to the end of violence … to distribute humanitarian assistance … and to encourage political dialogues among all parties concerned’. The ‘no-preconditions’ approach for the Myanmar visit, whether to commit to specific deliverables during the visit or provide access to personnel outside of the State Administration Council (SAC), also reflects the preference of some ASEAN members, including Cambodia, for an ‘ASEAN-style’ approach that is non-imposing.

As such, there were low expectations regarding which of the ‘parties concerned’ the Special Envoy would engage with. The SAC has stuck to its guns and insisted on labelling the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) and the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) as ‘terrorist’ groups. This is unlike its treatment towards ethnic armed organisations (EAOs). State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint are considered detainees under trial. The Special Envoy’s planned meeting with the wife of President U Htin Kyaw, Daw Su Su Lwin, a National League for Democracy (NLD) Central Executive Committee member herself, did not materialise as she turned down the request to meet, citing health issues. She probably did so to avoid causing tensions within the opposition.

Is ASEAN and its 5PC too little, too slow, to make a difference in the Myanmar crisis? As a commentator suggested, are two of the five points simply non-starters? It might be high time for ASEAN to rethink not just its approach to but the substance of 5PC. 

Instead, the Special Envoy ended up meeting with U Ko Ko Gyi, a former 88 generation student leader. He is the current Chairman of the People’s Party, which has shown itself amenable to working with the SAC’s Union Election Commission. A planned meeting with EAOs also appeared to have been cancelled according to news reports. Instead, the Special Envoy met the National Solidarity and Peace — Making Committee — one of three committees that were established to continue the peace process after the SAC demolished the NLD-led National Reconciliation and Peace Center. Hence, it was not a meeting with the EAOs per se but a meeting with a committee tasked to negotiate with the EAOs. 

The visit, couched carefully as a trust-building visit, came away with an agreement to convene a consultative meeting on humanitarian assistance to Myanmar involving all United Nations specialised agencies and domestic stakeholders. This meeting is expected to be convened in late April. There were also discussions on the creation of a humanitarian corridor to deliver aid expediently and efficiently to the most vulnerable through unhindered access. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s idea of an ‘ASEAN Troika’ (comprising the previous, the current and the incoming Chairs of ASEAN) that was raised during his first visit does not appear to have received a warm reception. Neither did the “Friends of Myanmar” — an initiative aiming to garner humanitarian resources from the international community — first mooted by Brunei Darussalam last year.  

As much as it may wish to give Cambodia a chance, ASEAN is running out of time to prove its relevance as an organisation. The number of atrocities and deaths are rising daily — at least 1,700 people are reported to have been killed while close to 13,000 people have been unlawfully detained. The United Nations Development Programme indicated that almost half of Myanmar’s population now live below the poverty line while its health and education systems have collapsed. 

This first visit by the 2022 ASEAN Chair’s Special Envoy should encourage all stakeholders to end the violence and work out a peaceful negotiated settlement based on the 5PC. A point of agreement in SAC-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin’s meeting with Prak that the process should be ‘Myanmar-led, Myanmar-owned’ was secured, but the question is whose Myanmar? Despite ASEAN’s vision of a people-oriented and people-centred Community, and a mandate in the 5PC to ‘seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people’, it has not heeded any calls for engagement with the NUG, even in a more informal setting at the sidelines of ASEAN meetings. 

From all accounts, it looks like minimal progress was made. History has shown that when ASEAN is unable to resolve a crisis, external parties will step into the breach. The UN, Japan and the European Union have too appointed their Special Envoys. Is ASEAN and its 5PC too little, too slow, to make a difference in the Myanmar crisis? As a commentator suggested, are two of the five points simply non-starters? It might be high time for ASEAN to rethink not just its approach to but the substance of 5PC.

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