According to the “ASEAN Chairman’s Statement on the Recent Escalation of Violence in Myanmar”, an ad-hoc document released on the ASEAN Secretariat’s portal on November 2, 2022, the regional association is “gravely concerned over the recent escalation of violence in Myanmar” and “deeply saddened by the growing casualties”. According to the statement, the recent escalation of violence “goes against the spirit of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus and undermining effort of the Special Envoy of ASEAN Chair on Myanmar”. Consequently, the ASEAN Chairman strongly urges “utmost restraint and immediate cessation of violence”.
Indeed, the recent violence escalation in Myanmar, a member state of ASEAN since 1997, has generated significant efforts on behalf of the Southeast association aiming for a peaceful solution in Myanmar, which, in turn, would benefit the overall security and stability of the entire region.
One of the most recent demarches in this regard took place on October 27, 2022, when the ASEAN Foreign Ministers held an emergency meeting on the Myanmar issue. While the meeting did not generate a joint statement (as it was the case in the ASEAN 54th and 55th Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in 2021 and 2022, respectively), perhaps in the light of the different views of the Ministers present, a “Statement of the Chair of the Special ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting”showcased the willingness to remain steady in following up the “Five Point Consensus” (5PC): “reaffirming the importance of the 5PC, which emphasized ASEAN Centrality and ASEAN’s leading role in returning peace and normalcy for the people of Myanmar, the Ministers and representatives reiterated full support for the tireless efforts of Cambodia as the Chair of ASEAN and Deputy Prime Minister as the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar in carrying out the mandate over the past ten months the high importance attached by ASEAN to the Myanmar issue becomes more than obvious.” In addition, according to the Statement, “the Meeting has also discussed about key recommendations to be submitted for the consideration of the ASEAN Leaders at the upcoming 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in November 2022”.
The 5PC, as mutually agreed by the nine ASEAN leaders and the Myanmar junta on April 24, 2021, agreed to put an immediate end to violence; to start a dialogue among all concerned parties; to mediate the dialogue process by the good offices of an ASEAN special envoy; to provide humanitarian aid through ASEAN channels; and to schedule a visit to Myanmar by the bloc’s special envoy to meet all concerned parties. Only days later, the junta referred to the consensus as mere “suggestions” and continued – to the day – to oversee a brutal national crackdown on its own citizens who oppose the military rule.
In a declaration widely circulated in the Southeast Asian media, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, noted that “Instead of progressing, the situation was even described as worsening. (…) The approach of sweeping problems under the rug should no longer be an option”. On a similar note, the head of the Malaysian diplomacy, Saifuddin Abdullah, has previously been reported in the regional media for having raised the prospect of dismissing the 5PC, due to its ineffectiveness. In September, during the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, held in New York, Minister Saifuddin has even questioned its validity, since the junta has been “blithely ignoring it”. The Malaysian and Vietnamese Foreign Ministers have not attended the emergency meeting in October 27, as well as Myanmar, which refused to appoint a non-political representative for the event.
However, according to the Statement of the Chair, all foreign ministers “agreed that ASEAN should not be discouraged, but even more determined to help Myanmar to bring about a peaceful solution the soonest possible.”
It is not unlikely that a cleavage might have surfaced with regard to the means to put an end to the violence in Myanmar among the ASEAN Foreign Ministers, in the light of the diversity of the points of view expressed above. Certainly, the most proactive voices within ASEAN might regard the Myanmar continuing hostilities as a peril to the ASEAN Centrality and hence aim for more pragmatic means to ameliorate the situation on the ground.
Indeed, according to the “European Parliament resolution of 6 October 2022 on the Media freedom crackdown in Myanmar”, the EU institution noted that “the Five-Point Consensus has not led to any results and calls on ASEAN to acknowledge that Min Aung Hlaing’s junta is not a reliable partner; urges ASEAN and its members to negotiate a new agreement on the crisis in Myanmar with the NUG [i.e. National Unity Government, a civilian structure widely regarded as the opposition] and to provide that new agreement with enforcement mechanisms, with a view to achieving a sustainable, democratic resolution of the crisis in the future.”
The United States have showcased a similar reaction earlier in July 2022, when the US Department of Defense has withdrawn from the two-day ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus Experts’ Working Group on Counter Terrorism, co-chaired by the Russian and Myanmar military. The spokesperson of the US Department of Defense, Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, reiterated his support for the ASEAN Centrality, yet decried “the atrocities they are continuing to commit against innocent people, and to imply support for these atrocities by the ADMM Plus and its members”. Australia similarly pulled out of ADMM Plus.
Despite the gravity of the situation, the prospects for the Myanmar junta to comply with the previously agreed consensus might be considered debatable. While accusing ASEAN of “discrimination” for having not invited the junta-appointed Foreign Minister at the FMM, the Foreign Ministry of the Myanmar junta noted that “Inserting additional pressure by setting a timeframe will create more negative implications than positive ones.” One could only hope that such “negative implications” referred to by the self-appointed ministry will not mean additional loss of life.
According to the public and think-tank debates in Southeast Asia, the Myanmar crisis represents one of the main factors affecting the peace, stability and security in the region; little wonder certain pundits have even went a step further, questioning – in the light of continuing hostilities in Myanmar – ASEAN’s very relevance in the political, economic and strategic architecture of the region, as well as the ASEAN unity, one of the sine qua non constituents of ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific.
Most likely, a stronger diplomatic message is to be sent to Myanmar later on November 10-13, 2022, when the ASEAN Summit is scheduled to take place in Cambodia, along with side-meetings with Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States. The following week, the Summit will be followed by the G20 leaders meeting in Bali, Indonesia, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group. It is not exclusive that, in the light of ASEAN Centrality, the like-minded leaders of ASEAN, G20 and APEC will jointly find the pathway to more effective actions with regard to Myanmar. Indeed, the continuing and aggravating hostilities in Myanmar seem to have placed the Southeast regional association in a position where it needs to balance its norms on non-interference and consensus with further consolidating the ASEAN Centrality by showcasing its capacity to put an end to the Myanmar crisis. In this regard, the Myanmar issue might also be regarded as ASEAN’s litmus test of the 21st century.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.