On 24 April, ASEAN held a high-level summit to discuss the mounting crisis in Myanmar. It was the first foreign visit by Myanmar Junta Leader, Min Aung Hlaing, since the coup on 1 February, which has resulted in more than 700 deaths and the detention of more than 3,300 people.
A five-point consensus was agreed at the summit – an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar. The summit failed to call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.
Asialink Adviser, Chen Lee, sought written responses from two experts — David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst who has been working on conflict, peace, and human rights issues in Myanmar for over 20 years and Morten B. Pedersen, Senior Lecturer in International and Political Studies at the University of New South Wales (Canberra) — to obtain their views on the outcomes of the ASEAN Summit.
1. What is your overall assessment of ASEAN’s 5-point consensus on Myanmar?
Mathieson: ASEAN’s consensus points were predictable. Short on condemnation and long on vague promises of engagement. Simply calling for an end to violence shouldn’t be a supplement for roundly condemning the State Administrative Council’s atrocities and insisting they step down. Appointing an envoy could be productive, depending on whom, the resources granted, and importantly the political backing by member states. ASEAN’s AHA Center leading on humanitarian aid is important, the crisis of displacement from the urban and rural fighting is fast becoming a humanitarian catastrophe, and anything ASEAN can do in working with the UN and INGOs to alleviate that suffering is positive.
Pedersen: Considering ASEAN’s long-standing commitment to consensus-based decision making and non-interference, the outcome of the recent Summit was probably near-optimal. It commits the grouping to working to stop the violence and outlines practical and realistic ways that it can contribute to this goal through mediation and humanitarian assistance. A key question, however, is whether member states will be able to follow the initial statement up with concrete action. Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing has not wasted any time walking back his supposed commitment to cooperating with ASEAN by emphasising that Myanmar will consider implementing the supposed consensus only after stability has been restored and in line with its own “five-step roadmap”.
2. Does the consensus reflect the sentiments and aspirations of the Myanmar people and the ethnic minority groups?
Mathieson: The consensus is glaringly out of step with what many in Myanmar are demanding. People resisting the coup were not represented at ASEAN, only the SAC leadership was. There was no call for release of 3,000 political prisoners or condemning military attacks against ethnic communities. Many Myanmar people perceive ASEAN as buying time for the military, and in effect engagement is recognizing the SAC as legitimate.
Pedersen: In short, ‘No’. The National League for Democracy-led parallel government has made it clear that it has no interest in dialogue with the military unless its leaders are released (a demand that was conspicuously left out of the Five-Point Consensus), and has strongly warned against the danger of letting the junta dictate the pace of ASEAN. Many members of the broader resistance movement have gone a step further, rejecting the Consensus as out of touch with the aspirations of the Myanmar people, which they say is to end the military’s involvement in politics altogether and build a new federal democracy. Among the latter, there is deep frustration and disillusionment with ASEAN, as well as the international community at large, over its failure to take more decisive action, reflecting, in part, a limited understanding of the realities of international politics in 2021.
3. Is ASEAN is assisting a negotiated outcome between all parties or strengthening the hand of the military?
Mathieson: ASEAN has been almost completely ineffectual in engaging Myanmar on serious political, humanitarian and human rights issues since it was admitted as a member in 1997, with the notable caveat of former ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan in 2008 following Cyclone Nargis. Why would they miraculously find the principle and practical ability to do anything different now? ASEAN and many member states may decry the coup d’état, abhor the SAC, fear increased regional instability and inevitable economic blowback, but they are committed to elite diplomacy which inevitably translates into accommodation with the military and the marginalization of opposition voices. The Myanmar military leadership instinctively grasps this.
Pedersen: The path laid out in the Five-Point Consensus, in principle, gives ASEAN a realistic and meaningful role in addressing the current pollical and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. Someone has to talk to the coup leaders about how they may get out of the hole they have dug for themselves, and there aren’t many who are both willing and able to take on that thankless task. Whether ASEAN ultimately succeeds will depend, in part, on the credibility and skills of the individual who is appointed to lead the mediation effort; in part, on the support they get from other parts of the international community; but mainly on the will of the main protagonists inside Myanmar to resolve the crisis. For the moment, the latter appears to be entirely missing.
4. Foreign Minister Maris Payne has publicly commended ASEAN's leadership in bringing regional parties together to discuss the crisis in Myanmar. Should Australia do more to pressure ASEAN and if so what?
Mathieson: Australian regional diplomacy is preternaturally disposed to appeasement, so commending ASEAN is often an insincere reflective response. The Australian foreign policy establishment backed by academic perspectives routinely, arrogantly, eschews ‘megaphone diplomacy’, preferring skillful quiet engagement with ‘states’, rarely ever admitting this approach is often a dismal failure in times of crisis. Pursuing a ‘rules-based international order’ is pointless when Canberra is so often permitting the rules to be flouted. ASEAN could do much better if Australia actually pushed harder, including being more critical of ASEAN. Adopting a leading from behind stance and sub-contracting the crisis to ASEAN is Australia’s way of saying ‘we’re pretty much rubbish at this.’
Pedersen: It would not be helpful for Australia to try to pressure ASEAN to act outside its comfort zone. None of the member states would take kindly to Australia pushing its weight around. In any case, ASEAN would never be able to act decisively unless key member states were genuinely committed to the chosen course of action. If Australia wants to see stronger ASEAN action, for example, on the humanitarian front, it should lead by example and provide positive support.
5. Should Australia act alone in addressing the crisis in Myanmar – or with countries such as Japan, the United States and others?
Mathieson: The only way to exert more pressure on the SAC and support the people of Myanmar is for Australia to strike out both unilaterally in condemning the coup and signaling its support for the divergent groups resisting military oppression, and working multilaterally with the United States, Japan, UK and EU, and despite manifold shortcomings both ASEAN and the UN, to ensure the coup will fail.
Pedersen: Australia should, as far as possible, act in concert with like-minded countries. Canberra has zero leverage over the new junta on matters of “high politics”, and no bilateral statements or sanctions will make any difference whatsoever to the decision-making calculus of the coup leaders. Similarly, Australia will generally benefit from working with international organisations, such as the UN and ASEAN, to deliver humanitarian and other assistance, partly to keep some distance between itself and an illegitimate government, partly to increase international bargaining power with the new military-led administration and maximise access to sensitive areas of the country. In some areas, Australia’s interests may align closer with Japan, Singapore or other regional countries than with the U.S. or Europe, which have the luxury of distance.
Banner image: Thai youths protest in solidarity with the Myanmar pro-democracy movement, Bangkok, Thailand - February 10, 2021. Credit: Adirach Toumlamoon, Shutterstock.
The ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand (AANZ) Dialogue is supported by the Australian Government through the Australia-ASEAN Council of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.