Three takeaways following the ASEAN Summit on Myanmar

Myanmar’s military chief and leader of the February 1 coup d’état met with leaders from across ASEAN for three hours on Saturday, coming to a fragile and controversial five-point consensus on how to de-escalate tensions in Myanmar. While it remains too early to predict real-world changes on the ground, there are a number of key takeaways from ASEAN’s weekend meeting to consider. 

Projecting an outcome from ASEAN’s five-point plan will be difficult

Through the current chair, Brunei, ASEAN released the five-point consensus document, which outlined the “immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar”. In order to “seek a peaceful solution” a constructive dialogue between all parties will commerce, with a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair to facilitate mediation. The special envoy and delegation will visit Myanmar to meet with “all parties concerned” and ASEAN will provide humanitarian assistance. What was completely unclear from the Jakarta summit is the fate of Aung San Suu Kyi and other National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders who have been detained or arrested by the Tatmadaw shortly after the coup. The document makes no mention of a timetable for action. 

Little has also been decided about the fate of thousands of individuals who have been arrested after widespread protests erupted across the country. Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who admitted that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing did not respond to demands to stop the killing of civilian protesters, partly because the negotiations were so sensitive. ASEAN representatives had wanted a commitment from Min Aung Hlaing to curb military activities by his security forces which have killed almost 750 people since public protests began. More than 3,300 remain detained. Recent reports have shown how dangerous the situation has become, as internal memos dated as recently as April 11, instructed security forces on the ground to“annihilate” anti-regime protesters because [they] have gone from peaceful demonstration to the level of armed conflict.”

The Tatmadaw will remain in power for foreseeable future

While the United States and the European Union have already imposed targeted sanctions against Min Aung Hlaing, as well as Tatmadaw-led businesses since the coup, there has been no momentum toward sanctions from ASEAN bloc countries, who prefer to pursue “engagement.” However, ASEAN erred by not inviting some of the other conflict parties that are waiting in limbo back in Myanmar, most notably the National Unity Government. Many have voiced concerns before the Jakarta talks that ASEAN’s invitation to Min Aung Hlaing would give him the legitimacy he was lacking, although ASEAN representatives claimed that during the meeting, they did not refer to the junta leader as a head of state.

ASEAN may have learned an important lesson from the weeks leading up to the talks in Jakarta.  The recognition of either the junta leader or the National Unity Government is a moot point compared to the dangers of taking sides. Neither side will accept the other as a legitimate actor. Further, Myanmar’s junta already knows that even the most extreme outcome—in the form of banishment from the bloc—would do little to change its mind. It has lived in isolation before and it has learned how to distinguish friends from foes and is learning to “walk with only few friends.”

In the early weeks after the coup, ASEAN was cautious and not a single member state publicly denounced the coup. Russia and China have given the junta plenty of space. Russia has already sought to increase security ties with Myanmar and was present for its Armed Forces Day celebration in Naypyidaw. Other states like India, who was also present, need to maintain relations with the Tatmadaw because of security concerns. No matter what happens, ASEAN will need the cooperation of the Tatmadaw in order to move a solution forward. 

Despite the outcome, ASEAN remains divided

ASEAN is notorious for its inability to come to agreement on a host of issues and several of those issues intersect with security and economic arrangements other ASEAN member states have with the Tatmadaw. Singapore and Thailand have considerable stakes in their relationships with Myanmar and have been cautious in choosing their words. Several foreign firms, including those based in Singapore are in joint ventures with the two military-owned conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), according to a United Nations Human Rights Council report. The revenue generated by the two companies help finance Tatmadaw operations and provide relative autonomy. Thailand has moved closer to Myanmar and remains a major investor in the country, in addition to personal relationships the military-backed government has forged over the years with Min Aung Hlaing. 

Only two ASEAN states have led calls to potentially intervene in the sovereign affairs of an ASEAN member state—something that was previously unheard of—Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia’s Jokowi, facing difficulties at home, spearheaded diplomatic efforts early, deploying Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who made a call for an “inclusive democratic transition” in Myanmar. While that early diplomacy failed, Indonesia later championed the move for an all-ASEAN summit, which it hosted this past Saturday. In a video message after the Jakarta talks, Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president called the situation in Myanmar “unacceptable” and said that “violence must be stopped, and democracy, stability and peace in Myanmar must be restored.” Statements like these are rare from ASEAN member states, which prefer to preserve the bloc’s long-standing principle of non-interference. It was also Indonesia who proposed the creation of an ASEAN special envoy.

The question now is whether ASEAN countries will have the resolve not only to get Myanmar’s junta to agree to a timetable for a political and humanitarian solution, but whether it will stand by democratic and human rights principles embedded in its own Human Rights Declaration.  They cannot pick and choose.

Even before it began, the Jakarta talks were blunted by the absence of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his counterpart in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. Thailand, other than a tweet by Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, who suggested that the way forward in Myanmar was through de-escalating violence, delivering humanitarian assistance, the release of detainees and dialogue. Prayut’s absence sent a signal to some that Thai pragmatism, and the growing personal relationships nurtured by their respective militaries was more important than the Jakarta talks that may or may not yield a satisfactory outcome. 

Photo Credit: Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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