Demonstrators calling for democracy in Myanmar take part in 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.

Demonstrators calling for democracy in Myanmar take part in 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)

The Myanmar Challenge to ASEAN

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Recent developments have shown how fragile and tricky ASEAN’s quest to help Myanmar will be.

Since the 5-point consensus was reached at the special ASEAN Summit in Jakarta on 24 April 2021, the process of implementing it has run into many obstacles, both inside and outside Myanmar. 

The first blow was struck by the National Unity Government (NUG) that represents a group of parliamentarians elected in the 2020 elections. Soon after the meeting, the NUG came out to decline participation in the ASEAN process and reiterate that the grouping should deal with it and not the Tatmadaw (the official name for the Myanmar military). While that may just be a continuation of its propaganda battle with the Tatmadaw, it also shows that it is not ready or open to dialogue and reconciliation under a neutral party like ASEAN. Its response amounted to a rejection of ASEAN’s help and an assertion that it will go its own way, however costly that may be.

The next blow came from the State Administrative Council (SAC). A few days after the meeting, it sowed doubt over what was decided at the Summit by referring to the consensus as only a list of ‘suggestions’. It also conditioned its timeline for acting on the consensus as something to be considered only after ‘stability’ had been achieved. This is a serious turnaround, and ASEAN would be justified to question the SAC’s commitment to its dialogue with ASEAN. As in the case of the NUG, the SAC’s actions play into the hands of the naysayers and does not help to improve the situation for anyone. 

If ASEAN cannot help despite having the support of almost the entire international community, then the country is sadly more likely to head further into economic collapse and anarchy. Already the news coming out of Myanmar is not good — inflation has spiked, economic activity is seizing up, and episodic street battles and bombings are eroding safety for ordinary citizens. Each side would like the other to give up so that things can be resolved in its favour, but that hope is unlikely to be fulfilled. Until they realise that, ASEAN will not be able to do anything to end the violence, bring in humanitarian aid and engender reconciliation. 

With this impasse, the issue has inevitably dragged on. One part of the 5-point consensus that ASEAN can make some progress on is the appointment of its Special Envoy to mediate the dialogue process. Here, a combination of distraction, passivity and risk aversion within ASEAN has slowed down the process. It is fair to say that many ASEAN states have a lot on their hands these last few months, with key countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and even Vietnam caught in Covid-19 vaccination challenges and the Philippines having the added distraction of political posturing for next year’s presidential election. While Brunei as chair has been spared such distractions, it has little experience dealing with Myanmar, let alone doing so under the present complex circumstances. 

In view of the high stakes in play for ASEAN’s credibility, this incident also has the potential to spark disappointment and internal recriminations among the other nine ASEAN countries.

The choice of an envoy requires two things: a credible figure or team of figures willing to do the job, and the consensus of all ASEAN states to his, her or their appointments. While the first is not insurmountable, it is typical within ASEAN circles that the latter takes considerable toings and froings to reach a ‘Goldilocks’ choice acceptable to all. This culture of deference and mutual accommodation serves its purpose in many instances but is ill-suited for crisis management. In view of the urgency of the humanitarian crisis, ASEAN states need to galvanise themselves and make their choice quickly as this is at least largely within their prerogative. 

In the meantime, ASEAN’s interlocutors in Myanmar continue to overplay their cards. While Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has admitted to underestimating the domestic opposition to the move to nullify the election results and take power, the SAC actions suggest they believe that time is on its side and that ASEAN will remain patient in the face of delayed action on the consensus. This would explain what happened last week when Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof went to Naypyidaw as Chair of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting with ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi on a consultation visit that expended goodwill but made little visible headway. While ASEAN looked bad, it is Myanmar that will suffer for it, as in the final analysis, it is Myanmar that needs ASEAN more than the other way around. All the progress that Myanmar has enjoyed over the decade since its reform can rapidly slip away if nothing is done to arrest the current descent.

In view of the high stakes in play for ASEAN’s credibility, this incident also has the potential to spark disappointment and internal recriminations among the other nine ASEAN countries. Such an outcome, while understandable, would not be helpful to anyone. The red-hot kitchen of crisis management requires a team of cool heads and firm hands working together to dish out what is needed. The alternative will be an unpalatable experience for everyone. ASEAN needs to keep together and keep at it in the hope that its menu of offerings will receive a better reception in Naypyidaw soon. 

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