ASEAN Summit 2022 and Myanmar: Signaling a New Level of Relations?

Not many days have passed since the 40th and 41st ASEAN summits were held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Nov. 10-13, 2022. Led by the chairmanship and presidency of Cambodia and its incumbent ruler Hun Sen, member countries have discussed diverse issues ranging from regional integrity to global dynamics like post-Covid-19 recovery, the Ukraine war, the tension between the US and China, the rising inflation and so on. However, the most talked-about theme of the summit that hit the ‘top of the agenda’ was the Myanmar crisis. Although the Myanmar crisis dominated the summit, the seat of the country was found empty at the meetings. With a view to pressuring the leaders of the military regime to comply with the ‘Five-Point Consensus’ for peace, ASEAN kept away and outlawed the junta from partaking in any high-level summits and meetings which was undoubtedly a bold decision from the regional power bloc.

On April 24, last year, the leaders of the bloc and the Myanmar military junta chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, had agreed to a “five-point consensus or plans” (5PC), which include — the humanitarian assistance of ASEAN to the country; an immediate termination of violence and suppression in the country; dialogue and discussions among all the parties; the appointment of a special envoy; and the visit and meeting of the envoy with all the parties. Initially, it seemed to be working and the military junta conceded to the plan but the effort was not satisfactory and could not make any difference at all. Rather, the chief of the junta flouted all the consensus and is continuing the vicious suppression and heinous crackdown against the people who oppose the military regime. 

Considering such a crisis in Myanmar, during the summit, a split in opinions among the leaders has been palpable regarding executing and imposing more pressure and interdiction on Tatmadaw. While a facet of the leaders concurred to elevate the pressure on the junta to ensure peace in the country according to the newly-taken 15-Plan, some others are concerned with increasing measures against the country and its results in de facto suspension of membership in the bloc. In the meantime, the organization is considering building up a new relationship with the NUG (National Unity Government of Myanmar), deemed as a successor group of NLD (National League for Democracy), which claims itself the legitimate government of Myanmar. 

The Current Status of ASEAN-Myanmar Relations: A New Level of Relations

Myanmar is always entangled in clashes between military rule and democracy. The country is undergoing one of the worst phases of its political instability due to military rule since February 2021. As a result, the junta is passing a grave crisis in its relationship with the ASEAN. In retrospect, after the military coup took place, the country had been overshadowed by mass killings, detentions and illegal arrests. According to the documentation of AAPP, as of November 2022, more than 2,500 people have been brutally killed by the military-led security forces, including 250 children among them. Moreover, 30,000 people have been detained and 1.4 million people have confronted internal displacements as a result of military atrocities throughout the country. Although the junta last year agreed to abide by the ‘5PC’, they have failed to do so rather; they decisively prevented humanitarian aid and foreign assistance to access the country.

Such violent activities of Tatmadaw made the relationship more complex over time which as a result, aggravated the other nine countries’ leaders to be more rigid in their stances and to thwart the regime at all stages. However, this has been more palpable by the tenacious decisions of the ASEAN members in the 40th summit where they discussed and consented to strengthen the measures against the military regime to comply with the peace plan. In this regard, Indonesia along with Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei is calling for rigorous actions against the military government. The proposal that has been put forward from the Indonesian side is to ‘broaden the ban on Myanmar military representatives at further ASEAN summits and meetings.’ The President of the country, Joko Widodo said that ‘his country is very disappointed with the worse situation Myanmar is currently undergoing.’ 

In this respect, Indonesia proposed a 15-point plan through which the other member countries also agreed to enhance pressure on the military junta to act for a peaceful solution. The foreign minister of Indonesia, Retno Marsudi said, “this is a warning, this is a strong message from the leaders.” However, the leaders also talked about the implementation of a plan that would ‘outline the practical, measurable and concrete indicators with a particular timeline for peace implementation’ but they all could not come along with a common room. Although some countries led by Indonesia urged to execute ‘more pressure on the junta and lengthen the ban’, backed by Laos and Cambodia, Thailand is contradicting the proposal of Indonesia since it might ‘amount to a de facto suspension of Myanmar’s membership.’ In this regard, on the other hand, the Philippine President, Ferdinand Marcos urged the member countries either to ensure ‘speedy implementation of peace plan’ or to open discussions with the opposition groups like NUG. Therefore, it is more obvious that if the Myanmar crisis becomes protracted, the ASEAN-Myanmar relationship will be restructured in a new contour.

NUG and Its Implications: Is it Feasible?

Since the military junta is stalwart and resolute in its stance not to comply with the peace plan, some leaders like the president of the Philippines have urged to ‘open contact’ with the NUG and other opposition groups. National Unity Government or NUG is composed of former legislators of the ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party. To Tatmadaw, the NUG, however, is a ‘terrorist group’ which is regarded as a groundless and inane claim by the ASEAN leaders. The leaders reckon that it would be a significant move for the organization if they engage with the opposition parties. By contrast, the question arises that whether the Tatmadaw will acquiesce to the development. Having no doubt, it would be a breakthrough move which might astound not only Tatmadaw but also some other ASEAN members as the opposition parties are not in the leading government and there are many questions about their legitimacy to be in the forum as a shadow government. 

Myanmar junta, however, solely denounced the decision of ASEAN and said that they would not accept such a move. The junta’s foreign affairs ministry further said, “Myanmar strongly objects to and condemns the attempts by ASEAN member states to engage with those unlawful and terrorist organizations through any means and forms.” The junta, moreover, called the decision ‘one-sided and malicious’ which might further elevate the tension in the relationship. Regarding ASEAN’s meddling in violence and instability in the internal arena of the country, the state media of the Myanmar junta castigated the organization and labelled the bloc as a ‘lapdog for the US.’ Observing such unrest, therefore, it can be argued that if it happens, the relationship between NUG and ASEAN would be very perplexing and bring about a new shift in Myanmar-ASEAN relations. 

What is the Future of the Relationship?

Getting membership in 1997, Myanmar has been a crucial member of ASEAN and the relationship has always been very much interdependent. From political, economic and social perspectives, both Myanmar and ASEAN (as a whole) contribute to each other’s progress to a considerable extent. Myanmar imports approximately 41% of its total imports from other ASEAN countries, the third-highest amount in the organization, while it exports about 43% to others which is the second-highest share within it. After the refugee influx had begun in 2017, and the military coup had taken place in February 2021, the country confronted an immense backlash from the regional power bloc and the outside world as well. 

With the development of last year, the relationship has become more intricate and ASEAN is taking more rigorous steps to put an end to the oppression led by the military junta. ASEAN is considering shifting from Five Point Consensus (5PC) to Fifteen Point Consensus in which, it is thinking of applying a neutral convoy that would consolidate all parties for a peaceful outcome. Moreover, ASEAN is also considering the inclusion of the opposition parties like NUG. By contrast, the junta is pursuing a very diverse approach. They are not complying with the peace plan rather; becoming more hostile to the ASEAN’s steps. Therefore, from both sides, the relationship is becoming more complicated and ASEAN, to some degree, may be criticized for its failure to address the internal dynamics of Myanmar and find an effective solution. However, ASEAN is willing to review the representation of Myanmar ‘if situation requires so,’ but Myanmar is apparently loath to comply. As a result, the future of the relationship is highly pessimistic unless changes take place from both sides with bona-fides.

[Thuận Tiện Nguyễn, via Pixabay]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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