The Myanmar Question in the ASEAN Summit 2023: Lessons for the Future

Leaders from Southeast Asia gathered in Indonesia on May 10 and made a demand for an urgent end to the conflict in the military-run nation of Myanmar in an effort to open up a window for talks and the delivery of aid for the war victims as the war gets worse. However, wrangling over Myanmar’s horrific conflict was anticipated during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference, with tolerance waning as the country’s junta shows no sign of pursuing a peace plan agreed upon with the regional group after seizing power in a coup in 2021. The leaders issued a statement saying, they were gravely worried by the ongoing violence in Myanmar and demanded the immediate stop of all kinds of violence and the use of force. Besides, a “conducive atmosphere for the safe and prompt delivery of humanitarian assistance and inclusive national conversations” was demanded by the leaders. This demonstrates the will of the regional bloc which is peace in Myanmar by stopping atrocities against the Rohingya community. But the intension of the junta is still on the dark.

The summit took place while the military of Myanmar steps up its ground and airstrikes against insurgents from ethnic minorities and resistance groups in an effort to seize control ahead of an upcoming election. It also happened just a few days after unidentified gunmen opened fire on a convoy of regional diplomats in Myanmar as they were bringing aid to some of the more than 1 million refugees from the violence. In an effort to stop this, the current ASEAN chair, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, had earlier urged the group to speak out as a whole about the difficulties it is facing in the area. He asked, would ASEAN merely remain silent or will it be able to spur peace and development? And the following sections will shed light on answering the question while will delineate the lessons for the future.

ASEAN Stepping Out of its Principle of Non-interference in Other’s Internal Affairs: Bringing Peace and Stability in Myanmar

Due to the junta’s inability to carry out a five-point “consensus” (5PC) for peace that its top general agreed to with ASEAN a few months after the coup destabilized the country, ASEAN, which has a policy of not meddling in the internal affairs of its members, has been eventually engaged with the junta in terms of peacebuilding. Moreover, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said on the margins of the summit that, Malaysia was dissatisfied that there continues to be a lack of substantial and actual progress in the implementation of the 5PC. Until they carry out the peace plan, which calls for a halt to hostilities, the leaders of Myanmar’s junta are currently prohibited from attending high-level meetings. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi revealed last week that Indonesia has been secretly negotiating with Myanmar’s military, its shadow government, and armed ethnic groups in an effort to restart peace negotiations. Moreover, Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo remarked that, ASEAN was doing as much as it could truly because when anyone was there on the ground it’s not that easy. However, some have urged ASEAN to adopt a stricter stance. According to former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, “to keep the seat unfilled at ASEAN summits is basically their comfort zone, they don’t have to be held accountable.”

According to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. late, discussions over a code of conduct for the South China Sea and escalating tensions about Taiwan were also likely to come up at the leaders’ meeting. It was unclear right away if those were brought up. Besides, ASEAN leaders released a number of common declarations, including pledges to fight human trafficking, defend migrant workers, and assist the region’s electric vehicle industry. So one thing is clear, that ASEAN gave utmost importance to bring stability in Myanmar which was reflected through the speeches of the delegates throughout the sessions. And to bring peace they even talked about the internal issue of Myanmar which was very rare for the regional bloc. 

A More Integrated ASEAN for Bringing Peace

Due to its failure to carry out the plan, which its senior general committed to in a meeting in Jakarta in April 2021, Myanmar’s junta has not been invited to ASEAN’s high-level meetings. On the eve of the conference, ASEAN Secretary General Kao Kim Hourn told Reuters that the plan, which calls for an end to violence, complete humanitarian access, and discussion with all stakeholders, will continue to be the cornerstone of efforts to engage the junta. He declared, “We want to see a stop to violence as quickly as possible.”

According to Indonesia’s president, Myanmar’s ruling military has made little headway in carrying out a peace plan that was agreed upon with ASEAN two years ago, and the group must act as a unit in deciding how to handle the deteriorating situation. Joko Widodo was speaking on day two of a leaders summit in Labuan Bajo, where the “five-point consensus,” as the Myanmar peace plan is known, will be a main topic for discussion. To him, the group must be forthright and sincere. The implementation of the 5PC hasn’t made many strides. Therefore, ASEAN unity is needed to deliberate on future measures. The 10-member body was urged by the president to develop a strategy to stop the increasing violence that has been occurring in Myanmar since a coup two years ago that sparked a wave of unrest and a brutal military crackdown.

Ramifications

Increased Pressure on the Myanmar Junta

The Southeast Asian leaders’ calls for an immediate end to the violence and conflict in Myanmar, as well as for conditions that will facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid and broad-based national discussions, increase the pressure on the Myanmar junta. The junta’s actions and intentions are being closely watched, and if Myanmar doesn’t accede to ASEAN’s demands, it risked furthering its international isolation.

Engaging in Peacebuilding

By working with the Myanmar junta on peacebuilding initiatives, the ASEAN summit breaks with the tenet of non-interference in domestic affairs. The remarks made by the leaders and the covert conversations by Indonesia show a desire to step in and try to end the dispute. This change might have an impact on how ASEAN handles prospects in the future in other member states.

Junta leaders will be prohibited from attending high-level meetings

The leaders of Myanmar’s junta are currently forbidden from attending high-level meetings as a result of their inability to execute the five-point deal for peace. This indicates ASEAN’s determination to hold the junta responsible for its deeds and lack of advancement.

Demands a Stricter Position

Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa is one ASEAN voice who has called for the regional group to take a firmer stance. At ASEAN meetings, an empty seat serves as a symbol of accountability and a warning to the junta that they cannot avoid taking responsibility for their deeds.

Broader Issues of Regional Security

Tensions around Taiwan and discussions of a code of conduct for the South China Sea were likely to come up at the ASEAN meeting. These problems bring to light broader regional security difficulties that are linked to the crisis in Myanmar. The summit’s decision may impact regional cooperation in addressing these security challenges as well as how ASEAN approaches them.

Focus on Myanmar’s Stability

The importance given to resolving the conflict is shown by the ASEAN leaders’ emphasis on bringing stability to Myanmar, which is reflected in their speeches and talks. It is unusual for ASEAN to concentrate on domestic problems within a member state, and this shows that the region understands the pressing need for peace and stability in Myanmar.

ASEAN’s unified and integrated strategy

The need for ASEAN unity in confronting the deteriorating situation in Myanmar was highlighted during the summit sessions. Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, asked the group to create a plan to stop the rising violence and called for a unified approach. This emphasizes how crucial it is for ASEAN to work together to overcome internal problems among member states and advance stability and peace.

Overall, the ramifications of the debates at the ASEAN summit point to a change in how ASEAN views internal problems among its member states, with a willingness to participate and intervene for the sake of peace and stability. ASEAN’s commitment to accountability is shown by the pressure put on the Myanmar junta, the ban on junta leaders attending high-level meetings, and the calls for a stronger approach. The interdependence of regional issues is shown by both the focus on stability in Myanmar and the broader regional security concerns. Moving forward, finding a lasting resolution to the conflict in Myanmar and tackling other security issues in the region would depend heavily on ASEAN’s cohesion and comprehensive strategy.

*Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs. He was a Research Assistant at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and International Republican Institute (IRI). He has completed his internship at Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TGP’s editorial stance.

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