The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh hosted the annual ASEAN Leaders' Summit from 8 to 13 November 2022. As the historical developments of ASEAN shows, the Annual Summit is the most important review and future predictions moment for the Association.
This year, the Summit has been the first major leaders meeting to be physically held in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The lengthy and substantial Chairman Statement showcases the multiple, diversified, urgent and very important matters which the leaders had to cope with. In parallel, a series of side meetings with regional and non-regional partners of ASEAN, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, China, South Korea, Japan, India, Russia, Australia, Canada and New Zealand have also been held on the sidelines of the summit.
The Summit took place against the backdrop of the continuous crisis in Myanmar, which has been going on for over a year and a half, since the military junta led by General Min Aung Hlaing took power in a coup on February 1, 2021 and now is trying its level best, in a certain extent successfully from his point of view, to consolidate his position, after overthrowing the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, since then detained on charges of fraud in the November 2020 elections. In reality, according to reports by the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the military junta has been responsible for massive human rights violations, carrying out harsh repression against the Burmese people's resistance movement for democracy, carrying out extrajudicial executions and torture of political prisoners and deliberate attacks on civilians, including bombing of schools and other buildings. The IIMM concluded the military junta’s violations amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
From the point of view of the reaction and action of ASEAN to mitigate the crisis, in spite of all measures taken so far, such as condemnation, establishing the strategy summarized in the “Five-Point Consensus” (5PC) of April 2021, organization of multiple meetings, the ban imposed on the junta from representing the country at the ASEAN Summits as well as the realization of all risks to jeopardize the ASEAN’s credibility externally and the very core of the regional association’s narrative – the ASEAN Centrality, to undermine the unity of the Association, the potential of the crisis to spill over regionally, the Summit this year was confronted with the conclusion, clearly recognized in the document which will be further analyzed in this paper that, on one side, the situation in “Myanmar remains critical and fragile, with growing violence” and represents “a major concern which affects not only Myanmar but also ASEAN’s Community-building efforts” and, on the other side, there was a “little progress achieved in the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus”.
According to a neutral and objective point of view, the current unsatisfactory stage of the above underlined situation resides not from a lack of will to solve the crisis but from the principle of non-interference(not to be blamed but, on the contrary, has to be observed) which is generating a very strictly literal application of the 5PC, particularly during the existence of difficult circumstances or even difference of the opinion among the ASEAN member countries to reach the so much compulsory consensus. The end outcome was the persistence of the lack of a united and strong voice of ASEAN to apply a more pragmatic, resolute and even punitive approach, though it exists, in multiple forms (e.g. applying a total embargo against Myanmar, inviting the members of the National Unity Government as observers or special participants to the ASEAN high-level meetings, even temporarily suspending Myanmar from the regional association and many other measure with a punitive nature). Military junta interpreted such approach as being only declarations.One may also consider that the overly lenient implementation of the “Five Point Consensus” allowed by time the military junta to prolong its control over the population.
Although ASEAN countries are committed to presenting a united front in their external relations, it is natural that national interests of its members – such as national security issues or economic interests – are, at times, conflicting, hence compromises are needed to adopt a cohesive policy. Myanmar question is, unfortunately, a vivid example that compromise was difficult to reach for the time being.
In the same line of objectivity, it is necessary to see that the conflict became a source and part of the geopolitical struggle. It could be inferred that adding to the regional association's predilection for foreign policy neutrality is also ASEAN’s desire to maintain friendly relations with the two superpowers vying for influence in the region in recent years, namely the United States and China. As the largest trading partner of ASEAN and a country with strong economic relations with Myanmar and other Southeast Asian states, China could be regarded by the regional association as a provider of economic development in the region. The United States, on the other hand, remains an indispensable, strategic and comprehensive ASEAN partner in both economic and security matters. Adopting a more pragmatic strategy to mitigate the Myanmar crisis could therefore create tensions with China (which reportedly has strong links with the junta in Myanmar), while the absence of initiatives to safeguard the population of Myanmar could risk attracting rightful criticism from the United States and the wider international community.
Due to all these considerations and political implications, which have largely and clearly been debated openly or confidentially among the member states and on world scale as well as in the regional and international mass-media, ASEAN, in real terms, so far was not yet able to substantially cope with this conflict within the Association itself.
It is for this reason why, under the above described situation and atmosphere, there was a great expectation from the ASEAN Summit of 2022 to evolve a more resolute decision and determination to go to the next level to put an end to the crisis in Myanmar. The mandate was completed, being proved by the decisions taken during the summit.
In this light, the nine ASEAN Leaders decided to emphasize their deep and real concernby coming up at their 2022 Summit, for the first time, with two approaches on Myanmar question – to issue a separate document called “REVIEW AND DECISION ON THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE FIVE-POINT CONSENSUS” as a solution of the crisis and, to introduce the supporting actions and measures to help the Burmese people to survive the crisis in the usual adopted Annual Chairman Statement.
The Review and Decision Document (RDD), in a much selected diplomatic wording and by maintaining unchanged the 5PC, is giving a kind of ultimatum to Myanmar junta in the spirit that “enough is enough”, it is time for actions! The Leaders committed themselves that “ASEANshall consider exploring other approachesthat could support the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus”. To be very clear and to reach the target - the military junta, they thought it necessary to reaffirm, as a way to the goal, that “ASEAN Summit is the supreme decision-making body and will make the final decision on the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus, including when consensus cannot be achieved, in line with the ASEAN Charter”. It could be very well interpreted as an embryonic idea that – based on the ASEAN Charter – the regional association may reflect upon giving up its traditional non-interventionist philosophy in exchange for a more pragmatic approach, that would be more in line with a Community, i.e. a rather integrative regional organisation, unlike the conservative views of a regional non-interference association; art. 20, par. 2 of the ASEAN Charter, notes that “Where consensus cannot be achieved, the ASEAN Summit may decide how a specific decision can be made.”In other words, the ASEAN leaders reiterated the possibility that through the institution of the ASEAN Summit – a tougher stance could be adopted in the future.
In order to eliminate any doubts or misinterpretations of their intentions, the ASEAN Leaders pinpointed the understanding of solving the matter:“We reaffirmed that Myanmar remains an integral part of ASEAN.” In other words, Myanmar is in the ASEAN family, but it is therefore “incumbent on the Myanmar Armed Forces to comply with its commitments to the ASEAN Leaders”. As far as the Five-Point Consensus is concerned it shall remain for ASEAN “our valid reference and should be implemented in its entirety”. With this aim, “there is a need for an implementation plan that outlines concrete, practical and measurable indicators with specific timeline to support the Five-Point Consensus Final 2 and, therefore, shall be developed”. It remains to see the content and force of the intended measures from the ASEAN Foreign Ministers, who were tasked to develop the implementation plan.
ASEAN will “seek all parties concerned to adhere to and implement the Five-Point Consensus”and “to engage all stakeholders soon. Engagement would be done in a flexible and informal manner, primarily undertaken by the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar due to the neutrality that is inherent in his/her mandate, with the sole objective of restoring peace and stability in the country in accordance with the Five-Point Consensus”. It means an equal treatment of all stakeholders, which could allow the Special Envoy to informally engage with the National Unity Government (NUG).
Contrary to the possible expectations of the military junta in Myanmar, the RD clarifies that ASEAN “will maintain Myanmar’s non political representation at its meetings”, but is also giving the hint that this situation might be changed “if the situation so requires”. This could be taken as indicating the acceptance of the circulated idea to invite the NUG at ASEAN meetings or – possibly – to accept the participation of Myanmar’s military junta if significant progresses have been registered.
ASEAN called “the United Nations (UN) and our external partners to support us in our efforts in the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus”. This could mean an intention to eliminate any self imposed diplomatic hesitation to ask for foreign support, hopefully only as much as it is required, derived from the principle of ASEAN Centrality. At the same time, ASEAN might intend to enlarge and consolidate the spectrum of internationalization of the Myanmar question.
The RDD of the ASEAN Summit 2022 seems natural in the current context; some countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore keep pushing for a more pragmatic stance in dealing with the junta in Myanmar.
It seems that Myanmar Junta got the message and released these days thousands of political prisoners as well as a former British Ambassador, an Australian economist and a Japanese journalist. This is far away from what is really necessary to happen in Myanmar!
While adopting a strong commitment to act differently and with vigor, ASEAN created a situation full with hopes as far as the external factor is concerned. However, the internal developments are the determinant element. Myanmar junta reacted through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a hostile attitude and harsh criticism of the Review and Decision Document. As it is was expected, the National Unity Government expressed its desire to assist ASEAN.
There is a solid ground of expectation that RD could be successfully implemented by Indonesia which will be the ASEAN Chair for 2023, coming with a solid diplomatic and positive political and pragmatic image after a very successful G 20 Presidency, where its Summit in November became the venue of important decisions and meetings, including on the war in Ukraine.Indonesia is the driving force in ASEAN and has a reach and successful experience in solving conflicts in the region.
Willing to pacify Myanmar, yet continuing to do so with everyone's consent may render ASEAN again in a standstill decision-making process. In this regard, one could presume that all ASEAN leaders, without any exception, may agree that any delay in adopting a resolute strategy, as it was already underlined in this analysis, based on RD, may harm ASEAN’s credibility and the legitimacy of the ASEAN Centrality. A robust and a speedy approach will help the development of Myanmar and even more will put an end to the current sufferings of the Burmese people, which, in fact, is the core of the whole efforts to reach a speedy settlement for the horror taking place in Myanmar.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.