ASEAN Must Reengage with Myanmar

23 May 2023
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By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: Indonesian President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, was frank in saying that no progress had been made over the Myanmar crisis at the latest ASEAN summit in Labuan Bajo during a press conference after the event. Apparently, he was disappointed that the chair's efforts did not make the desirable outcome under his watch.

However, his foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, was more optimistic, saying there was progress in access to humanitarian aid and establishing a dialogue with all stakeholders. Indeed, some progress has been made quickly due to the new humanitarian crisis caused by Cyclone Mocha last week in northern Myanmar.

One big lesson learned from the Indonesian chair's experience in tackling Myanmar's conflict must be the wholesome yet nimble approach by ASEAN. That means simultaneously using the bloc's strength, courage, wisdom, and vision that allows it to play either a soft or hard role at the same time.

However, for some ASEAN members, Myanmar has failed to implement the five-point consensus (5PC); therefore, the bloc maintains firm on preventing Myanmar's leader from participating at this political level.

Other members, who share a border with Myanmar, thought ASEAN should continue to engage Myanmar collectively and individually. Isolation would only prolong the ongoing conflict.

After the coup in February 2021, ASEAN leaders prohibited Myanmar military leaders from attending the ASEAN key meetings.

At the summit, ASEAN leaders saw eye to eye that both informal and formal engagements with Myanmar were necessary to conduct future dialogue and build more confidence among all concerned parties. Each member can contribute to the peace process but with a unified goal of bringing reconciliation, peace and democracy to Myanmar.

The leaders also firmly support the 5PC peace plan and their decisions made in Phnom Penh last November without wavering.

Since the coup, the conflict has impacted the security and stability of its neighbouring countries and beyond, with ripple effects being more serious than anticipated.

The ASEAN chair also realised that without cooperation from Myanmar, the growing transnational crime networks, especially those involved in human trafficking, would not be suppressed.

Just a few days before the summit, 20 Indonesians were rescued from the Myawaddy district opposite Maesot, Tak province. They were lured by illegal call centres based across the Thai border. Victims were reportedly coming from Malaysia, Thailand, among others.

The case was serious enough for the chair to push for a separate joint leaders' Declaration on Combating Trafficking in Persons Caused by the Abuse of Technology.

Interestingly, Myanmar tried very hard to make its presence felt at Labuan Bajo by communicating through two documents prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which were circulated among the members. Myanmar's seat was left vacated at the summit, but Nay Pyi Taw's voice was heard.

In addition, Aung Myo Myint, Myanmar's ASEAN permanent representative, was at the non-political meetings. It all indicated that Myanmar did not want to isolate itself from ASEAN.

In the first document, dated May 4, the military regime, officially known as State Administration Council (SAC), underlined its efforts since the coup in February 2021 toward peace, stability and democracy, which it described as a synergy of ASEAN Five-point consensus (5PC) and Myanmar's Five-Point Road Map.

It had seven headlines explaining Myanmar's fulfilling the bloc's 5PC.

The report first detailed the cooperation with the three special envoys of the ASEAN chair, the SAC peace initiative, actions taken by the resistance forces, Nay Pyi Taw's efforts to restore stability and peace, efforts to reinstate a multi-part democracy, amnesty for convicts, humanitarian assistance through an AHA Center and repatriation of internally displaced people from Rakhine.

The ASEAN leaders took note of the document.

Essentially, the SAC gave a one-sided progress report, which provided clues to the SAC's thinking and strategies. While the SAC perceived it had made progress in three key areas contained in the 5PC, including cessation of violence, inclusive political dialogue and humanitarian assistance, ASEAN members apparently did not share those views.

Before the summit, ASEAN leaders issued a strong statement expressing their deep concerns over the situation in Myanmar.

ASEAN urged Myanmar to end all forms of violence and the use of force to create a conducive environment for the safe and timely delivery of humanitarian assistance and inclusive national dialogues.

Moreover, the statement supported Jokowi's condemnation of the attack on a convoy of the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Management Center and the ASEAN Monitoring Team in Myanmar.

Just hours before ASEAN leaders were about to meet over the retreat, the SAC circulated a single-page letter from SAC leader, presumably Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, addressing his ASEAN colleagues.

The letter dated May 9 said in part that "the government extends an invitation to members of People Defense's Force (PDF) and other armed resistance activities to the legal fold and join hands in the national-building".

Returnees, the letter stated, will be given necessary amnesty or a lessening of their punishment would be considered case by case, in line with the existing law.

But there will be no such exceptions for those who have committed serious crimes such as murder and rape.

The letter was the first charm offensive by the SAC ahead of the leaders' retreat. Previously, ASEAN strongly condemned the air attacks last month in Pazi Gyi village in Sagaing region, which killed 170 people.

Furthermore, the SAC also pledged to "provide necessary assistance to all returnees for reintegration, and rewards will be offered to those who turn in arms and ammunition".

The letter also gives reward details -- the return of a rifle or a drone was worth 50,000 kyat (5,850 baht); one handmade gun, mine and a bomb were worth 30,000 kyat.

So far, none of the resistance forces have heeded the SAC overtures.

The military regime had earlier extended a ceasefire, which resistance forces refused to follow, and fighting has continued unabated.

The letter did not mention the National Unity Government (NUG), which is waging a diplomatic war against the Tatmadaw regime.

The international community, especially Western dialogue partners, have pressured the ASEAN leaders to take punitive actions against Nay Pyi Taw. The next few months will be crucial to determine if new measures are needed to reprimand Myanmar in light of the latest developments on the ground.

Since last week, questions have been asked whether Thailand's policy toward Myanmar would shift given the nation's surprising electoral result.

The opposition parties, led by the Move Forward Party, are currently trying to form the next government. Speculation has been widespread that it would not be as friendly to Myanamr's junta as the outgoing Prayut administration.

For now, the country's policy toward Myanmar's quagmire remains intact. Thailand's position is clear on the necessity of reengagement with Myanmar.

As a next-door neighbour sharing 2,401 kilometres of border, Thailand wants peace more than anybody else. Bangkok believes that condemnation and isolation of Myanmar would not serve the bloc's collective interest, not to mention its own.

Even with the more progressive government-in-waiting, the substance and trajectory of present policy and practice will be maintained over what is occurring in Myanmar.

But, stronger views could be voiced on norms and values related to the conflict, refugees, and migrant workers, among other issues.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in Bangkok PostClick here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

Photo Credit: AFP

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