The latest from ASEAN leaders on Myanmar shows more steel in the spine but for real progress to be made, Indonesia as the next ASEAN chair must follow through expeditiously.
Any consensus document, by its very nature, will never satisfy all parties fully. The ASEAN Leaders’ Review and Decision on the Implementation of the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) could have been worse if an earlier leaked draft had prevailed. That version called for retaining the 5PC on Myanmar without specifying reasons, aligning the 5PC with the State Administration Council (SAC)’s five-point roadmap, limiting ASEAN’s insistence on Myanmar’s non-political representation to only the foreign ministers’ and leaders’ meetings, and tasking the ASEAN Senior Officials to thrash out details.
The 11 November 2022 statement can be viewed as an addendum to the 5PC, stating the nine ASEAN Leaders’ collective view of the Myanmar crisis and outlining the next steps. That the 5PC remains a “valid reference” to be “implemented in its entirety” is a reminder that four of the 5PC’s five priorities remain unmet or only partially met. What is outlined in this document is thus a set of implementation guidelines for the 5PC.
The latest document reveals the extent of the nine ASEAN Member States’ differing views and interests vis-à-vis Myanmar. Yet, as far as negotiated compromises go, the final document reflects the reality that ASEAN cannot disengage Myanmar. Responding to a question after the ASEAN-UN Summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres admitted that the global community had failed the Myanmar people. Since April 2021, the international community has expressed support for – and criticism of – ASEAN’s 5PC, but no international consultations for a coordinated approach (involving ASEAN members) have emerged.
The Leaders’ review statement reiterates ASEAN’s intent to keep Myanmar in the family. Implicit in this is a reminder that Myanmar as a member state has corresponding obligations and commitments. The review’s Point 5 states where the primary responsibility lies, on compliance (or its lack) with regard to “commitments to the ASEAN Leaders”. It is noteworthy that the review refers to the “Myanmar Armed Forces” as the “single largest armed force”. This may have the effect of relegating the SAC to the same level as many other “armed forces” operating in Myanmar.
Several points, including criticisms from analysts and commentators, previously discussed in the media and recently championed by incumbent Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah have found their way into the document. Point 7 calls for an implementation plan with measurable indicators and a specific timeline. This suggests that ASEAN’s patience has worn thin with the SAC’s intransigence and is an acknowledgement that the original 5PC’s broad framework left too much open to interpretation.
The SAC has rejected ASEAN’s decision, while the NUG has offered to work with ASEAN.
Similarly, the document’s Point 8 calls for engagement in a “flexible and informal manner”, which could allow the Special Envoy to informally engage with the National Unity Government (NUG). Calls for ASEAN to engage with other stakeholders increased after Malaysian FM Saifuddin publicly met with NUG FM Zin Mar Aung on the sidelines of the ASEAN-US Summit in Washington, D.C. in May 2022.
The loose wording in Point 9 leaves flexibility for the ASEAN Coordinating Council (comprising the foreign ministers) to either review and extend or to reverse the decision to maintain the non-political representation criteria “if the situation so requires”. The decision to maintain the status quo reflects ASEAN’s pragmatism regarding functional tasks related to regional economic integration and other cross-cutting issues. If a decision were to be taken on non-political representation in other sectoral meetings, however, the first consideration would be the key meetings over which the ASEAN Chair has oversight. However, there is a risk that future discussions on ASEAN’s response may use the ambiguity of point 9 to reverse such a decision.
Point 11 calls for “all parties bearing arms” to be held accountable for their actions. This may yet assist the NUG in enforcing its military code of conduct and rules of engagement, and aid the probes started earlier in 2022 into potential war crimes committed by some local resistance forces. What is important is that Point 11 notes that the “Myanmar Armed Force [sic] is the single largest military forces [sic] in Myanmar”, which implicitly suggests that it bears the largest responsibility for the violence committed so far.
The conferring of “some degree of autonomy” on the ASEAN Secretary-General and the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Centre regarding humanitarian assistance for Myanmar is welcome news. A certain level of bureaucratic wrangling has hampered the ability of these two primary actors to ensure that humanitarian assistance is delivered effectively and efficiently.
Points 13 and 14 on inviting external partners and other approaches to support the implementation of the 5PC suggest that ASEAN is open to multi-pronged and coordinated approaches to address various aspects of the Myanmar crisis. It is an admission that ASEAN cannot go it alone and an appeal to ASEAN’s dialogue partners with investment and economic interests in Myanmar to cooperate.
With just weeks left to the end of Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship, a third visit to Myanmar by current Special Envoy Prak Sokhonn is now unlikely. The SAC has rejected ASEAN’s decision, while the NUG has offered to work with ASEAN. It is now up to the new Chair Indonesia and its Special Envoy to take ASEAN’s revised approach forward.
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.