Police (foreground) disperse demonstrators calling for democracy in Myanmar during a rally outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) building in Jakarta on 24 April, 2021, where the ASEAN summit on the Myanmar crisis is due to take place. (Photo: Bay ISMOYO/ AFP)

Police (foreground) disperse demonstrators calling for democracy in Myanmar during a rally outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) building in Jakarta on 24 April, 2021, where the ASEAN summit on the Myanmar crisis is due to take place. (Photo: Bay ISMOYO/ AFP)

ASEAN’s Mission to Myanmar: An Approach to Ends with Possibilities of Success

Published

All eyes will be on the incoming mission of the ASEAN Chair’s special envoy in Myanmar to facilitate talks between the military junta and civilian government it toppled earlier this year. But the writing is already on the wall – the envoy has a mountain to climb.

Following the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting on 24 April, a special envoy of Brunei as the ASEAN Chair is being appointed to spearhead the grouping’s attempts at making peace between the military junta and the civilian government it toppled more than three months ago. The envoy’s mission will be ambitious, to say the least, and interest from the international community will be intense. Given ASEAN’s inherent limitations, however, expectations will need to be moderated.

The ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting made a nominal breakthrough in ASEAN’s search for a constructive role in mediating the political crisis in Myanmar. The meeting agreed on the Five-Point Consensus, namely (1) immediate cessation of violence; (2) constructive dialogue among the parties concerned; (3) the Chair’s special envoy to facilitate mediation; (4) humanitarian assistance by ASEAN; and (5) visit of the special envoy and delegation to meet all parties concerned. 

ASEAN state leaders at the Leaders’ Meeting in Jakarta, on 24 April, 2021. (Photo: ASEAN Secretariat website)
ASEAN state leaders at the Leaders’ Meeting in Jakarta, on 24 April, 2021. (Photo: ASEAN Secretariat website)

Three weeks since the meeting, ASEAN remains the best hope, if any, for the international community to effect some positive change in Myanmar. But that hope is dwindling with each passing day. Developments unfolding quickly on the ground are threatening to take over the tenuous consensus — if it can be considered a consensus at all — and its slow-motion implementation. ASEAN’s inherent challenge, as usual, is to match consensus with compliance and form with function. 

To be sure, behind-the-scene preparations and consultations are underway to carefully calibrate the special envoy’s mandate and workplan. It is reported that the special envoy, supported by the ASEAN Secretariat, will visit Myanmar after the Ramadan month, which ended on 12 May. But between the “declaratory intent” of the Five-Point Consensus and the “operational reality” of the special envoy’s mission, there are wide gaps that will be hard to surmount.

The first gap is between the ASEAN leaders’ zealous anticipation and Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s real motivation as they reached the Five-Point Consensus. The consensus plan was formulated with the assumption that the junta chief agreed to it “in good faith”. But it was hard to ascertain this assumption at the time the Leaders’ Meeting wrapped up and even now. Back home, the State Administration Council (SAC) is buying time and continues to consolidate its political control with an iron fist, saying that a visit by the special envoy would not be welcome until the SAC has firmly established “security and stability”. That leaves the timing of the proposed trip unconfirmed and uncertain. 

In ASEAN, there is a precedent where noble intentions were run aground by hard political realities. After skirmishes broke out between Thailand and Cambodia in early 2011, a special ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting was held under the able chairmanship of then-Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa. The meeting agreed that Indonesia as the Chair would deploy a monitoring team to the border area to help stabilise the situation. The team was, however, never deployed as Thailand reversed its position under the staunch opposition of the Thai army. 

This experience is a grim reminder that a regional commitment can well be neutralised or backtracked. Compliance with ASEAN decisions on political issues is mainly driven by peer-group pressure and the reputational cost of non-compliance. But all these considerations pale in comparison with the overriding concern to maintain regime survival. Furthermore, the Myanmar general might double down on his recalcitrance. He had left the 24 April meeting with the comfort of knowing that ASEAN still relies on moral suasion rather than punishment of his military government. And the senior general knows that no ASEAN country wants to burn bridges with the Tatmadaw which they hold as “a key institution in Myanmar’s body politic”. 

As we watch the incoming mission of the special envoy with bated breath, expectations must be moderated against ASEAN’s inherent limitations and the complexities in Myanmar’s body-politic.

Even if the special envoy and his team are able to land in Nay Pyi Taw, they would have to deal with with prohibitive political constraints. There are also safety and security concerns related to Covid-19 and the ongoing violence on the streets that the SAC could use as cover to limit the special envoy’s action. 

The special envoy’s mandate is to meet all parties concerned to facilitate and mediate their constructive dialogue. Yet, his problems have started even before he lands in the nation’s capital. On 8 May, the SAC designated the National Unity Government (NUG) and the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) as “terrorist groups” and the NUG a few days ago also declared the SAC “an illegal terrorist group”. How constructive could the supposed dialogue be when the two parties frame each other using such pejorative labels? What would the next course of action be for the envoy if both sides refuse to dialogue with each other, especially on the part of the SAC? Would the envoy go the extra mile to engage the NUG despite the SAC’s opposition? How credible is the NUG’s claim to represent Myanmar’s different ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and Civil Disobedience Movement? 

ASEAN has been muted on these questions and persists with its patient and quiet diplomacy. But the NUG and the international community are running out of patience as the Tatmadaw increasingly turns its attention to fighting the EAOs and pressuring people to return to work. As a sign that the international community is looking for work-arounds in the current stalemate, US State Department officials on 11 May were in talks with Dr Sasa, the NUG spokesperson and foreign minister.

Mediating dialogue among the parties concerned is a tall order. But through his sheer presence on the ground, the special envoy can encourage self-restraint from violent action and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance. These are more realistic targets for the special envoy and his delegation. ASEAN knows that it can only start with small, practical steps. But ASEAN must act quickly because the situation is evolving rapidly. Its member states must sustain their bilateral pressure on the Tatmadaw and rally major power support for ASEAN’s role, especially at the forthcoming meetings between ASEAN foreign ministers and their American and Chinese counterparts. 

As we watch the incoming mission of the special envoy with bated breath, expectations must be moderated against ASEAN’s inherent limitations and the complexities in Myanmar’s body-politic. As stated by the renowned Southeast Asia scholar Michael Leifer, ASEAN is not “a ready-made panacea for security and prosperity but merely an approach to such ends with possibilities for success.”

2021/123