Asean’s Next Move in Myanmar

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 25 April 2021

The five-point consensus on the situation in Myanmar agreed by the Asean leaders in Jakarta on Saturday will provide a rough roadmap for a “regional process” to find a durable solution. In the coming weeks, Asean has to act prudently and take advantage of the momentum generated by the three-hour “family-like gathering”.

The Asean leaders and Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi exchanged views in a frank manner during the two sessions.

The first session lasted only 30 minutes with the report by the Asean chair, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, on the ongoing efforts to strengthen the Asean community, the response to COVID-19 and progress of the economic recovery plan. The chair also stressed the importance of Asean’s external relations. As such, Asean must maintain balanced relations with the bloc’s two major dialogue partners, China and the US. The chair also tasked the foreign ministers with admitting the post-Brexit United Kingdom as an 11th dialogue partner this year.

The second session was devoted to Myanmar. After an introduction by the chair and a report by the Asean chief, Myanmar’s coup leader Min Aung Hlaing took the floor for the next 30 minutes, briefing the Asean leaders on the situation. He showed a series of digital slides and distributed a hefty handbook detailing what his State Administrative Council has done since it seized power on February 1.

Other leaders spoke candidly, especially on the need to end violence against protesters, free political prisoners, hold talks and look for reconciliation. At the meeting, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai called for the discharge of all detainees in a four-point proposal, which also includes de-escalation of violence, delivery of humanitarian assistance and talks. Other leaders shared similar views. No Asean leaders lashed out at the senior general. During the informal ministerial meeting on March 2, foreign ministers from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia strongly criticized the military regime represented by veteran diplomat, Wunna Muang Lwin, which has been used to point to Asean’s lack of unity in the crisis.

The coming days will show if Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has kept his word in stopping the violence. He promised the Asean leaders that the situation is improving. Independent sources, including Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, put the numbers of deaths above 750 while the junta insists only 247 have been killed. He alleged “unknown forces” were responsible for the other deaths.

Without monitoring officials and a mechanism to end the violence, Asean must rely on personal trust in the senior general. The meeting was a good opportunity to observe his manner and body language as a means to establish trust. One official described the meeting as “a family gathering with lots of reflections of their faces and bodies”.

One indicator will come along the Thai border. At the moment, the numbers fleeing are minimal. Earlier, the Thai authorities raised fears that there would be an influx of refugees. That has not happened. If the fighting intensifies, there will be waves of people crossing.

If there is convincing evidence that the Tatmadaw (military) is keeping its word, Asean can then expand its contacts and explore areas of “quick returns” for cooperation. Obviously, humanitarian assistance would be one area, as Myanmar is facing a COVID-19 crisis. Min Aung Hlaing boasted that 1.8 million people had been vaccinated. If everything goes as planned, with the appointment of a special Asean envoy then it is possible that Asean would be able to dispatch an assessment team to Myanmar to work out action plans for further humanitarian operations and other priorities in the near future.

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