Myanmar’s Crisis & the World

ASEAN Leaders Struggle for Answers to Myanmar Crisis

By AFP 11 November 2022

PHNOM PENH—Southeast Asian leaders on Friday demanded the Myanmar junta take action to implement a peace plan aimed at quelling the country’s escalating bloodshed, which has seen thousands killed in clashes since last year’s coup.

The Myanmar crisis dominated the first day of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc in Phnom Penh that US President Joe Biden will join on Saturday.

Myanmar has spiraled into bloody conflict since the military ousted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government in February last year.

ASEAN agreed a “Five-Point Consensus” peace plan with Myanmar in April last year but the junta has so far ignored it and the bloc has struggled for months to come up with ways to enforce it.

Frustration is growing among the other nine ASEAN countries at the generals’ foot-dragging and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of the Philippines told his fellow leaders that “speedy implementation” of the consensus was needed.

ASEAN has blocked junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from attending the gathering in Phnom Penh, which Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is also attending.

China, the bloc’s biggest trading partner, has historically had good ties with the Myanmar junta, though it has voiced some unease at the ongoing chaos in the country.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the leaders had agreed on a 15-point decision plan, thrashed out over two days of talks with her counterparts.

While she did not give details of the agreement she said it represented a stern admonition to the junta to act or face serious consequences—including expanding a ban on junta figures attending ASEAN meetings.

“This is a warning, this is a strong message from the leaders,” Marsudi told reporters.

Within the bloc, Indonesia has been one of the main voices calling for tougher action on the junta, along with Malaysia and Singapore.

Marcos also called for ASEAN to open contacts with opposition groups in Myanmar, echoing a draft summit statement seen by AFP that suggested engaging with the National Unity Government (NUG).

The NUG is a self-declared parallel body dominated by former lawmakers from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and considers itself to be Myanmar’s legitimate government.

The Myanmar junta regards the NUG as “terrorists”, and engaging with the group would be a significant step for ASEAN.

Last year’s coup slammed the door on Myanmar’s brief dalliance with democracy after decades under army rule.

Earlier this month Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan warned that the Myanmar military had “a very high tolerance for pain, very high tolerance for isolation” and the crisis could take decades to resolve.

US pressure

Western powers have heaped sanctions on the junta and the United States has urged ASEAN to take a “forceful” stance to squeeze the junta to reduce the violence, which escalated in recent weeks with deadly military air strikes on civilian targets including a school and concert.

Daniel Kritenbrink, the top US diplomat for East Asia, said Myanmar would be a top subject when Biden meets ASEAN leaders on Saturday.

After Phnom Penh, Biden is due to fly to a high-stakes meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia on Monday.

Junta defiance

ASEAN foreign ministers held emergency talks on Myanmar last month and said afterwards they were “even more determined” to find a solution.

Myanmar state media have slammed ASEAN’s involvement, accusing the bloc of being a “lapdog for the US” while the junta warned against imposing a timeline on the peace process, saying it could lead to “negative implications”.

On the eve of the summit, rights campaign group Amnesty International called on the leaders to agree a complete embargo on the transfer of arms and aviation fuel to Myanmar.