ASEAN special convoy with Myanmar foreign minister

ASEAN special envoy, Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn (L), is pictured here with Myanmar's Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin (R), on the former's second trip to Myanmar from 29 June to 3 July 2022. (Photo: Prak Sokhonn/Facebook)

Has ASEAN Reached the Point of Diminishing Returns with Myanmar?

Published

The State Administration Council has cleverly gamed the ASEAN system for its own ends and dragged out the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus. It is time for ASEAN to pack more punch into the office of the Special Envoy to Myanmar.

ASEAN observers may disagree on many things about the grouping but on the issue of Myanmar, they agree on one point: the country’s downward spiral following the coup in 2021 presents ASEAN with the most severe challenge to unity and centrality in its 55-year history. 

Myanmar’s multi-dimensional problems trigger frustration and concern in equal parts. The Myanmar people’s resilience is under increasingly tremendous stress with the on-going political crisis. Failing state institutions are inadequate in the face of a profound humanitarian crisis exacerbated by violence intensified after the coup. In an already climate-vulnerable Myanmar, seasonal adverse weather events worsened by climate change will only add to the current mix of disasters and challenges.

Nearly 18 months after the coup, Myanmar is becoming a frustrating trifecta for ASEAN: the intransigence of the State Administration Council (SAC), the doggedness of the resistance movement (all of whom may not necessarily come under the aegis of the National Unity Government (NUG) or National Unity Consultative Council), and the aspirations of different ethnic armed organisations (EAOs). This renders the task of those seeking mediation a “mission impossible”. Even the delivery of humanitarian aid to Myanmar has been politicised as a “weapon”, with the SAC setting pre-conditions that preclude the actual delivery of aid. 

The current ASEAN Chair’s Special Envoy Prak Sokhonn raised this during his second visit (29 June – 3 July) to Myanmar. That visit had one goal: to push the implementation of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC) adopted in April 2021. Similar to the first visit in March, SAC scoped Prak’s second visit, only allowing him to meet with SAC bodies, and EAOs and other entities “approved” by the SAC. Prak himself had little to say beyond observing that it was “constructive” to hear from “various actors on the ground” on the “progress and constraints” of the 5PC implementation, and calling for compromise.

The SAC’s disinclination to compromise presents the main roadblock here. It has become adept in manipulating the current ASEAN space. It repeatedly rebuffed Brunei’s efforts in 2021, and turned to its advantage Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bilateral visit in January. ASEAN’s aim to introduce a humanitarian pause, by engaging all parties concerned in the shared objective of delivering aid, has not materialised. Delivering humanitarian assistance seems to have become a game of cat-and-mouse, with SAC changing access to certain townships, sending only SAC-approved interviewees to the Joint Needs Assessment, and foot-dragging over the proposed pledging conference. 

The Myanmar military has learnt to play the diplomatic game, drawing on the same precedents of working with ASEAN-coordinated responses all too well. Thailand’s special representative on Myanmar Pornpimol Kanchalanak, cautioned attendees to the Special Session on Myanmar at the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in June that not engaging with the junta would only yield “diminishing returns”. Yet, the SAC has rebuffed ASEAN’s attempts to engage all parties towards a constructive outcome. This underscores that ASEAN may have reached a point of diminishing returns to break through the impasse in Myanmar. 

How can ASEAN beat the SAC at its own game? ASEAN’s decision in 2021 to hold SAC accountable on the 5PC implementation (or lack thereof) and downgrade Myanmar’s representation at Summit (and now, foreign ministers) meetings to a “non-political” level had its intended psychological effect. Denying recognition has bruised SAC egos. Yet the SAC persists in conflating its political road-map with the 5PC, and has shown disingenuousness by taking advantage of differing views within the grouping. 

[The SAC] has become adept in manipulating the current ASEAN space.

Instead of viewing these differing internal views as a hindrance, ASEAN needs to leverage on them. Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin’s call for engaging openly with the NUG and encouraging other ASEAN member states to do the same is an example, as is his call to set an actionable plan and timeline for the 5PC. 

ASEAN’s pragmatic diplomacy during the Kampuchean conflict saw the grouping engage with different factions to negotiate peace for the war-torn country, even despite the discomfort of working with the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Myanmar in 2021-22 is certainly different from Cambodia in the 1980s, but ASEAN’s past experiences show its awareness of diplomatic ambiguity. Engaging all factions involved did not mean ASEAN conferred legitimacy to any side; doing so kept the issue alive on the international agenda for two decades. 

An opportunity — albeit one of a mid-term nature — may lie in revisiting the term, appointment, and role of the ASEAN Special Envoy. A longer term, a redefined role, and a stronger core of institutional support may give future special envoys a fighting chance. Currently, there is a built-in impermanence to the special envoy’s effectiveness. This presents a ground-hog day scenario for the SAC and other stakeholders, who may take advantage of the rotating envoy schedule to delay or draw out responses to ASEAN.

First, the special envoy’s term must not be tied to the rotating Chair. The protracted nature of the Myanmar crisis requires more investment of time and commitment if the special envoy is to accomplish anything. A three-year (renewable) term may be reasonable. 

Second, the appointee should preferably be a former office-holder with sufficient gravitas to engage directly and confidently with ASEAN leaders and the international community. At present, the envoy is typically the Chair country’s foreign minister, whose myriad responsibilities include managing bilateral and multilateral relationships, and hosting and chairing key ASEAN meetings through the year. This leaves the envoy with little time to focus on Myanmar’s challenges exclusively.  

Third, the main institutional support for the special envoy is currently the Chair country’s ministry of foreign affairs. Again, drawing support from a multi-stakeholder source might be advisable here. A dedicated team — comprising senior ASEAN Secretariat representatives, the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Coordinating Centre, and the Committee of Permanent Representatives in Jakarta — can work with the special envoy, to coordinate information-sharing and decision-making as the situation requires. 

Precedent still matters in ASEAN. The question now is at which level of the diminishing returns of ASEAN’s current engagement with the Myanmar military does the grouping decide to put the process on life support? Strengthening the mandate and institutional support for the special envoy is one part of the equation. The other lies in strong leadership driving radical change in the way ASEAN engages with Myanmar. Indonesia as the ASEAN Chair may have a fighting chance next year. In the meantime, the Myanmar populace bears the main brunt of ASEAN’s Myanmar crisis.

2022/196

Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.


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