Gwen Robinson looks at the evolving crisis in Myanmar and highlights the diminishing role of ASEAN as the international community runs out of patience.
A great irony emerging from Myanmar’s coup on 1 February 2021 is how it enabled military chief Min Aung Hlaing to achieve something no modern Myanmar leader could ever do: unite a fractious society. In a country long dominated by its Bamar majority yet riven by ethnic, social and religious tensions, resistance groups driven by popular fury bridged traditional divides to come together in the post-coup period.
That anger also led to the parallel National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow parliament of ousted lawmakers, a people’s assembly, a network of local governments, and a new generation of resistance fighters. By early 2023, unprecedented cooperation on the battlefield between mainstream ethnic armed groups and people’s defence forces had seen significant gains in many parts of the country.
Unlike similar efforts in the wake of Myanmar’s 1988 coup by pro-democracy forces to form a parallel government and raise a resistance army, today’s revolutionary fervour does not appear to be fading. Woefully under-resourced resistance forces now operate in more than 50% of Myanmar, although primarily in rural areas.
Yet in regional diplomatic terms, the coup has had the opposite effect. It has shattered the cohesion of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Initial mediation efforts by ASEAN leaders led to the so-called Five-Point Consensus (5PC) with the junta leader in April 2021 to halt violence, recognise an ASEAN special envoy, allow dialogue between all parties, and grant access to humanitarian aid.
The 5PC, later rejected by Min Aung Hlaing who claimed he was following his own “five-point” plan to resolve tensions, has become an embarrassment for ASEAN, highlighting its collective policy paralysis. Indonesia, as the group’s rotating Chair for 2023, is trying to change that. But it is a monumental task. ASEAN’s decision to suspend Myanmar from sending political representatives to high-level meetings undermined its cornerstone principles of centrality and non-interference in each other’s affairs – leaving the group in an open-ended “10-minus-1” configuration.
Despite the regime’s intensification of a savage military campaign that has displaced more than 1.3 million people, killed more than 30,000 on all sides and doubled the number of people living below the poverty line to more than 45%, ASEAN is effectively divided over Myanmar.
On one side, the Mekong region nations – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos – favour continued engagement with the junta, or the State Administration Council. But Indonesia and Malaysia, clearly concerned by the post-coup savagery and still angered by the military’s 2016-17 expulsion of nearly 1 million Rohingya Muslims, are pushing to further isolate their pariah member. They were joined by Singapore and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines and Brunei. From early 2023, Indonesia as ASEAN Chair shifted to a more measured yet secretive stance, launching quiet talks with all sides including the NUG and the junta. While behind-the-scenes diplomacy may sometimes be necessary, it is difficult to measure progress when details in the public domain are lacking.
Western countries, including an increasingly proactive US and UK, have slapped multiple sanctions on Myanmar’s junta but have publicly deferred to ASEAN to lead crisis resolution efforts through the 5PC. Japan, which has poured billions of dollars in aid and investment into the country, is trying to maintain a middle path, suspending new official aid after the coup but remaining protective of its interests including hundreds of Japanese companies invested in Myanmar. Despite Tokyo’s strong stance against Russia’s war in Ukraine, so far it has refused to consider bilateral sanctions, while discreetly trying to distance itself from the junta. Its special envoy Yohei Sasakawa has helped channel humanitarian aid to resistance-linked groups but also insists that elections are the “only exit strategy” for the regime.
In broader diplomatic circles there is a growing sense that time is running out for Myanmar diplomacy, not only due to escalating atrocities but also Min Aung Hlaing’s efforts to legitimise his coup regime. The general touted his intention to stage elections within 2023. That timetable may have slipped, given his admission in February that less than two-thirds of the country’s 330 townships were “stable and peaceful”. The state of emergency was extended for another six months, casting doubt over the timing of the election. Yet, preparations for a poll have continued, including the distribution of electronic vote-counting machines to regional centres and the launch of an unrealistically stringent party registration process.
The prospect of stage-managed elections that would hand the military regime fresh legitimacy in the eyes of sympathetic powers such as China, Russia, and India has raised new alarm in Western capitals.
Summing up Washington’s view, US State Department counsellor Derek Chollet told media ahead of his visit to Indonesia and Thailand in late March: “Unfortunately the news is only getting worse inside Myanmar, which I think increases the urgency that we feel to try to get something done. And our lines of effort that the US has pursued with our partners over the last several years remain, which is continuing to try to punish and isolate and pressure the junta.”
Within ASEAN, negotiations rooted in the flawed 5PC plan remain the main strategy. Beyond Indonesia’s quiet diplomacy, however, divergent efforts by Thailand have fuelled Western concerns about a steady shift to a more “minilateral” – even entrepreunerial – approach toward Myanmar. In December, Thailand’s foreign ministry convened what became known as a “non-ASEAN, ASEAN meeting” that included the foreign minister of Myanmar’s junta among five Mekong region countries. This, however, was rejected by other ASEAN members.
Highlighting deepening regional divisions over Myanmar, Thailand in late March hosted a secretive “Track 1.5” meeting of concerned countries, mainly Myanmar’s neighbouring states. The low-key gathering drew an uneasy mix of government and non-government representatives from about 11 countries and organisations including India, Bangladesh, China, Japan, and the five Mekong region countries, including senior Myanmar officials. Notably absent were the other five ASEAN countries with differing views as well as any US official representative, although the meeting had heard from conservative American academic Karl Jackson.
The participation of awkward neighbours such as India and China in this hasty, ill-planned session underlined ASEAN’s weak grip on the expanding crisis and heightening concerns among regional observers – not least of its convenor, Thailand. Underscored by its shared border and reliance on natural gas imports from Myanmar for at least 15% of its energy needs, Thailand has the most at stake among regional countries. China, an unenthusiastic yet strong backer of the junta, also looms large over Mekong countries through its massive Belt and Road infrastructure projects.
There were no concrete outcomes from the March Track 1.5 talks nor agreement on a fresh round. However, the meeting reinforced the rising wave of Myanmar-driven backroom diplomacy. As Thai analyst Kavi Chongkittavorn noted, the Bangkok gathering was “a first stepping stone for more informal dialogue events… It’s imperative for delegates from Myanmar to hear views directly from other countries with stakes in its future.”
But Washington and other Western capitals are taking the opposite view. They are asking ASEAN to continue to isolate Myanmar’s junta and increase pressure on frontline countries such as Thailand to facilitate cross-border aid to resistance-held areas. Moreover, the US administration is increasingly putting money where its mouth is, following the December 2022 passage of legislation by the US Congress which approved support for Myanmar’s resistance forces including (non-lethal) assistance to armed groups.
For ASEAN however, the prospect of being saddled with a “failed state,” as Chollet described Myanmar, remains the group’s greatest existential nightmare.
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 1/2023 published in March 2023. Download the full issue here.
Gwen Robinson is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, and Editor-at-Large at Nikkei Asia.