Kasit Piromya shares reflections on efforts made by ASEAN’s special envoys to Myanmar.
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2022 published in September 2022. Download the full issue here.
The coup d’etat staged in Myanmar on 1 February 2021 by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has not only put an end to a decade of democratic reforms and plunged the whole country into chaos, it has also presented ASEAN with one of its most difficult challenges. It has become a defining threat severely confronting the regional group’s strengths and unity.
The international community considered that the crisis triggered by the illegal military takeover was an issue for ASEAN to resolve, as Myanmar is one of its members. The reason was that the organisation was best positioned to handle the issue, given the close ties of its member states to the country. And it goes without saying that the regional group would have to address the internal crisis within the bloc, regardless of perceptions and demands from external international actors.
ASEAN member states are not new to coordinating their responses to tough crises afflicting Myanmar. The regional group successfully led the provision of humanitarian assistance after the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. At that time, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military junta that ruled the country between 1988 and 2011, blocked international agencies and governments from assisting the affected areas in the Myanmar Delta, despite a staggering death toll of over 130,000.
The deadlock was only broken when ASEAN took the lead in distributing international aid, as the regional group, which Myanmar joined in 1997, was the only organisation that the isolationist and paranoid junta chaired by Senior General Than Shwe could trust.
ASEAN also encouraged the SPDC to move forward with its “Roadmap to a Discipline-flourishing Democracy.” The seven-step roadmap formulated in 2003 had been stalled for years. It began to move forward due to a large extent to intensive and continuous discussions at all levels within ASEAN, particularly between the Myanmar Foreign Minister and his counterparts in the region.
Indeed, the “discipline-flourishing democracy” designed by the junta was far from perfect. Still, given the equilibrium of forces between a military firmly entrenched in power and a battered pro-democratic opposition, it was probably the best that could be expected at that point. The military ensured that the 2008 Constitution was designed to protect its interests and its pre-eminent role in politics, and its tight control of the transition process.
Yet the partial democratisation initiated in 2011 brought profound changes in the country, and an extent of openness not seen for almost five decades. Those changes culminated with the victory in November 2015 of the National League Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was able to head the government a few months later. That heralded a diarchic form of government in which the NLD had to share power with a military largely outside its control. But the civilian authorities were given room to manoeuvre in issues unrelated to security—that the government led by Suu Kyi missed this opportunity to effect profound political changes is another question.
The fact that the military already possessed considerable power under the terms of a constitution and a political system designed to protect their position and interests, coupled with the fact that the NLD government did little to rock the boat, makes the coup last year all the more irrational and unjustifiable.
Both in the case of Cyclone Nargis and the democratic transition, ASEAN found ways to cooperate with Myanmar’s military government. There was a sense of common purpose and partnership that led to results that, even if not entirely satisfactory, contributed to ameliorating the plight of millions in Myanmar.
But the current crisis is different, and ASEAN member states should realise that there is no sense of partnership nor willingness to cooperate on the part of the Myanmar junta. Min Aung Hlaing and his henchmen have given ample proof that they are only interested in consolidating their power, and if that means quashing the widespread popular movement with extreme brutality, so be it.
In April 2021, the leaders of nine ASEAN countries and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing met and signed the historic Five Point Consensus. The agreement calls for an end to the violence devastating the country, dialogue among stakeholders, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and the appointment of an ASEAN Special Envoy by the current rotating chair of ASEAN. The ASEAN Special Envoy was expected to work closely with the Myanmar military authorities and meet the opposition forces and encourage a dialogue process between both sides.
The first Special Envoy was Dato Erywan Yusof, Second Foreign Minister of Brunei, and Chair of ASEAN in 2021. During Brunei’s Chairmanship, ASEAN decided not to invite high-ranking junta members or political representatives to ministerial meetings. Yusof chose to cancel a proposed visit to Myanmar when the junta informed him that he would not be allowed to meet opposition figures, including the jailed Aung San Suu Kyi. That sent a strong message to the deeply embarrassed junta craving international recognition.
Then came Cambodia’s turn as the ASEAN Chair, which appointed Prak Sokhonn, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister as the new special envoy in 2022. The approach of Cambodia to Myanmar has been very different from that of other ASEAN countries. Sokhonn has met Min Aung Hlaing, but did not manage to engage the opposition. The visit by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to Naypyidaw and his meeting with the junta leader had further lent a degree of legitimacy to the military regime, something that other ASEAN countries were careful to deny.
Cambodia’s approach has not worked. A year and a half after its adoption, the Five Point Consensus is a dead pact. Violence continues unabated; the junta has shown no interest in any kind of dialogue, and humanitarian assistance is not reaching the Myanmar people who need it. The military junta has ignored the Five Point Consensus despite its obligations, and has shown blatant disrespect for ASEAN.
Progress along the lines established by the Five Point Consensus is doubtful, and the nine ASEAN members must urgently review and reassess their approach to dealing with the Myanmar crisis.
First of all, they should realise that the junta is neither a legitimate nor a rational actor to hold a meaningful dialogue with. ASEAN member states should coordinate to apply as much pressure as possible on Min Aung Hlaing’s regime, enforcing sanctions against the generals and their cronies, banning them from visiting their countries, and withholding any recognition. If necessary, ASEAN should suspend Myanmar’s membership in the group. On the other hand, ASEAN should engage with the pro-democracy forces and recognise the National Unity Government (NUG) as the legitimate authority in the country, welcoming their representatives in various capital cities of ASEAN member states.
ASEAN can no longer rely on a rotating Special Envoy. It should consider appointing a full-time and permanent Special Envoy who can work closely with the group of Foreign Ministers and Senior Officials. That would send a message to the Myanmar generals that they now have to deal with the group of Foreign Ministers as a whole, and that the Special Envoy counts with the full backing of all ASEAN governments, not just the rotatory Chair. The Special Envoy could be tasked with the overall coordination with both the military authority and the opposition side. In addition, he or she could also work with UN agencies to monitor the situation and developments on the ground.
A renewed collective effort on the part of ASEAN Foreign Ministers would also send a message to both China and Russia that their backing of the junta will definitely affect the future of their relations with ASEAN. It will also provide impetus for democratic countries to come out and work closely and earnestly with ASEAN to push Myanmar’s military back to the barracks.
We have to recognise that ASEAN is made up of ten member states with different political systems, and it is very difficult for one member state to lecture or reprimand other members about which political system is better. But all can agree on that, whatever system they have, they should not move backwards. In this sense, ASEAN has an obligation to help Myanmar to return to a path to democracy.
Kasit Piromya was Foreign Minister of Thailand from 2008-2011. He has served as an Ambassador to a number of countries such as Russia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Germany, and the United States.