More than 300 protesters, mostly Myanmar nationals, rallied outside the Myanmar embassy on Sathon Road in Bangkok

More than 300 protesters, mostly Myanmar nationals, rallied outside the Myanmar embassy on Sathon Road in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut / Bangkok Post / Bangkok Post via AFP)

Does ASEAN Matter for Myanmar?


Now that the ASEAN Summit is over, serious questions remain about how exactly the regional grouping can begin to resolve the Myanmar crisis, despite stronger words and a slight toughening of position.

Anyone with even a fleeting interest in ASEAN’s work will sense the grouping’s frustration over the lack of headway in its response to the Myanmar crisis. Most of the attention on the 43rd ASEAN Summit under Indonesia’s chairmanship was on what ASEAN would do next in holding the State Administration Council (SAC) military regime in Myanmar accountable.

A second review of and decision on the implementation – or lack thereof – of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC) contained stronger and more decisive language than the first review issued in 2022 during Cambodia’s chairmanship. Consensus on the document’s language and recommendations took less time than at last year’s summit, according to insiders.

Reactions to the new decision points were somewhat predictable. The SAC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the Leaders’ second review, insisting that its inputs had not been reflected. Supporters of the resistance against the Myanmar military welcomed ASEAN’s decision to defer Myanmar’s 2026 turn to chair ASEAN, and the Leaders’ pointed reference to the Myanmar military “in particular” for the continuing spiral of violence in the country. Yet observers were sceptical of the troika mechanism (see discussion below), and many were disappointed that the decision points did not go further.

There is some value in considering ASEAN’s decision points on Myanmar in the broader context of several other important statements adopted at the Summit, such as the ASEAN Concord IV and the set of non-binding rules to guide decision-making internally. The ASEAN Concord IV follows the preceding Bali Concords that set out ASEAN’s strategic direction. Unlike its predecessors, however, the ASEAN Concord IV highlights human rights promotion and protection as its first and fourteenth points in a 16-point list of “ASEAN Matters”.

The effort to establish clearer rules for decision-making reveals an awareness that ASEAN needs to move away from muddling through.

Might this suggest a change in ASEAN’s thinking on the matter of protecting fundamental freedoms, that ASEAN should matter to its people and its member states? Pressing challenges of asserting ASEAN centrality continue, particularly at a time when member states’ domestic interests and internal disagreements seem to overshadow the grouping’s unity of purpose amidst rising geopolitical tensions. These external challenges affect how ASEAN deals with regional priorities, especially the Myanmar crisis. The effort to establish clearer rules for decision-making reveals an awareness that ASEAN needs to move away from muddling through.

The continuing violence in Myanmar requires ASEAN leaders to send a more explicit message to the SAC. If one were to view the latest Review statement on Myanmar as part of a general convergence of purpose among the nine heads of state and government (ex-Myanmar) in ASEAN, the Review documents indicate that whether Myanmar’s presence at ASEAN high-level meetings can be restored is linked to holding the SAC accountable for the lack of progress on the 5PC. This has set a precedent that may likely continue.

Suggestions for an ASEAN troika mechanism surfaced early in the Myanmar crisis. In 2021, discussions on the appointment of a Special Envoy included some suggestions of either a troika or a “group of friends” mechanism. In 2022, Cambodia’s year as Chair, former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen raised the possibility of an ASEAN troika when he visited Myanmar, but his suggestion did not gain any traction.

ASEAN first introduced a Troika in 1997 for the Cambodia peace process but did not stipulate the past/present/future ASEAN Chair format. Instead, foreign ministers of the Philippines (as then Chair), Indonesia (for its involvement in the Paris Peace Accords) and Thailand (for its proximity to Cambodia) constituted this first ASEAN Troika. This troika did afford ASEAN a role to mediate among Cambodian stakeholders towards restoring stability and, eventually, ASEAN membership for Cambodia in 1999. ASEAN Leaders at their third informal meeting in 1999 agreed to set up the troika mechanism at the ministerial level but did not stipulate any fixed format.

The troika currently proposed for Myanmar using the past/present/future Chair format may be useful for ASEAN foreign ministers and their senior officials to work more efficiently for a coordinated approach on Myanmar. However, the ASEAN Troika’s terms of reference adopted in 2000 stipulate consensus for its formation and mandate. The grouping’s longstanding non-interference and consensus principles may need a more flexible interpretation if the ASEAN Troika is to mediate the Myanmar crisis effectively.

The deferment of Myanmar’s turn to chair ASEAN in 2026 shows a marked difference from the appreciation in 2005 regarding Myanmar’s then offer to defer its turn. ASEAN’s record of the 2026 deferment is a firm decision made by the leaders without giving the SAC a chance to reverse the position.

The continuing violence in Myanmar points to how there is no quick fix to resolve deep-seated issues. Among the approaches attempted by ASEAN Chairs since 2021, Indonesia’s quiet diplomacy in 2023 emphasised the importance of listening to and engaging all concerned Myanmar stakeholders to build trust. ASEAN leaders have called for these engagements to continue under the next chairmanship, and Indonesia’s part in the proposed troika would provide that continuity in 2024.

The reality remains, however, that regional diplomacy – and all the expressed support for it – is still moving much too slowly to address the plight of the Myanmar people. Ad hoc arrangements such as the troika still require acceptance by the generals in Naypyidaw to contribute to the greater efficiency of ASEAN’s response, to regional peace and stability, and the well-being of Myanmar’s people. However, the lack of significant progress on the ground in Myanmar related to the 5PC may indicate the extent of how much ASEAN matters to different Myanmar stakeholders.


Moe Thuzar is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. 

Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and concurrent Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre and Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She is also editor of Building a New Legal Order for the Oceans.