ASEAN Diplomatic Deftness on Myanmar is Claptrap

By David Scott Mathieson 6 August 2021

It is rare to see the United States and China in simpatico about anything. But on Myanmar the two superpowers agree. It’s a mess. And the designated cleanup crew is the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The appointment of Brunei’s ‘second’ foreign minister Erywan Yusof as ASEAN’s special envoy, is a key component of the Five-Point Consensus reached at the special summit in Jakarta in April to address Myanmar’s post-coup crisis. That it has taken three months to reach an agreement on who the point person should be serves as irrefutable evidence of ASEAN’s lack of urgency in addressing the challenges.

As over 940 people have been killed by junta forces, and over 5,000 are in prison and tens of thousands exiled or displaced, while armed conflict is raging in multiple locations, there is widespread flooding and the Covid-19 pandemic is devastating communities nationwide, the appointment of a special envoy might seem redundant.

There was evident discord within the ten-member grouping, after coup leader and head of the State Administration Council (SAC) Senior General Min Aung Hlaing indicated in his speech marking the six-months of the coup on August 1 that he had accepted former Thai deputy foreign minister Virasakdi Futrakul. Indonesia evidently wants a more robust approach towards the junta and put forward former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda. Malaysia’s efforts to promote former United Nations Special Envoy Razali Ismail was tantamount to political exhumation and was never taken seriously: he was an abject failure at every turn when he tried to negotiate between the military and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from 2000 to 2005.

The special envoy has been tasked with “building trust and confidence with full access to all parties concerned and providing a clear timeline on the implementation of the five-point consensus.” In an ASEAN setting, that basically means talking with the SAC and other engaged regional governments. It doesn’t appear that there is any appetite for formally talking with the shadow National Unity Government or the many other opposition forces that have emerged as a result of the violent military takeover. Erywan Yusof must report back to the regional grouping in September. Once again, ASEAN has crafted a compromise to ensure their policy of appeasement.

The West has already endorsed this squalid farce. The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a statement, “The United Nations (UN) looks forward to continuing its cooperation with ASEAN on a coherent response to the crisis in Myanmar, noting the complementary roles of the ASEAN special envoy and the UN special envoy.”

The UN’s response to the violence in Myanmar has been anything but coherent. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, demonstrating serious discord by condemning the Myanmar military and the coup, but then solely entrusting ASEAN with its solution, also welcomed the appointment. In a speech to the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting Blinken also called the grouping “key to the future of the Indo-Pacific”, indicating that massaging ASEAN’s ego to counter China’s influence is more important than saving Myanmar. The cognitive dissonance of condemning the coup and subcontracting its solution to ASEAN was echoed by the European Union, who made the hopeful observation that “meaningful political dialogue remains key with all stakeholders including the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the National Unity Government (NUG), ethnic groups and other pro-democracy forces committed to working towards a peaceful resolution of the current crisis.” One can envisage mass Macarena dancing for joy in the halls of foreign ministries from Canberra to Ottowa: finally, ASEAN has saved the day! We’re off the hook!

But what is equally distracting to the envoy appointment is the evocation of ASEAN as the decisive diplomatic solution, similar to the response to tropical Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in May 2008. This comparison is profoundly misplaced.

Responding to the scale of multiple needs throughout Myanmar is markedly different to the challenges of scaling up aid to displaced communities in the Ayeyarwady Delta, after Nargis killed more than 140,000 and displaced several hundred thousand people. The then ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) responded with callous disregard, baulking at efforts to permit international assistance. There were outcries for R2P then as well, and while American, British and French warships were off the coast waiting to airlift relief supplies, the UN fumbled and the West not for the first time confronted the then junta’s truculence over the welfare of Myanmar’s people.

The breakthrough, such as it was, was almost single-handedly the result of efforts by then ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister of Thailand, a skillful diplomat and intellectual, not a droning bureaucrat. Knowing that the SPDC had a deep mistrust of the West and their human rights moralizing, Surin maneuvered to promote ASEAN as a trustworthy focus point. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon travelled to Myanmar in late May, and with Surin they created the Tripartite Core Group (TCG) comprising SPDC officials, ASEAN and the UN. A Post-Nargis Joint Assessment preliminary report in June estimated that US$303.6 million in urgent aid was needed. Several weeks after the cyclone, due to the regime’s dithering, half of the victims had still not received assistance. Soon after the TCG started operations, the SPDC started imposing new restrictions on humanitarian space, but by then the world’s peripatetic attention span had moved on. The current military regime knows they only have to endure a limited media cycle before international outrage wanes.

This narrative of ASEAN exceptionalism was propagated by scholars Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Moe Thuzar in an ASEAN-sponsored book Myanmar-Life After Nargis. That hagiographic study was interesting as much for what it omitted as for what it included. The truly exceptional role in response to the cyclone was played by thousands of Myanmar people, from the staff of national and international aid agencies, local philanthropists, faith-based organizations and many normal people dedicated to helping Nargis’s victims.

They traversed the junta’s roadblocks and obstructions, whilst the foreign disaster relief workers stranded in Bangkok dominated the news. Also often overlooked in evoking the ‘Nargis spirit’ is the fact that Myanmar remained a military dictatorship for the next three years until Thein Sein pseudo-civilian government replaced it. In the uncanny ability of the Myanmar military to inspire mental contortions in westerners, many diplomats believed Thein Sein to have been transformed by witnessing the suffering of civilians after Nargis. This Grinch theory of compassion was as unconvincing as many other aspects of the discipline-flourishing democracy system Thein Sein maintained.

There are echoes here of the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when so many Western aid and development donors staged a ‘pivot’, more aptly termed a panic, to provide assistance to the healthcare departments of ethnic armed organizations for coronavirus mitigation. Some observers hailed this moment as a potential breakthrough for government and insurgent cooperation, a transformative moment akin to the post-2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami peace accord between Indonesia and the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement) resistance group. That comparison is misplaced to the point of intellectual indolence: there were far more complex factors at play than some magical post-calamity epiphany. Many of the commentators and consultants who evoked this canard of a comparison in 2008, and in April and May of 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic, are now lazily raising a similar opportunity for ASEAN.

A similar attempt to reanimate the ‘Nargis spirit’ was attempted in the aftermath of the mass expulsion of the Rohingya from Northern Rakhine State in 2017. With deep mistrust of the UN and international NGO’s, many of whom had been actively complicit in the repression of the Rohingya, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Kyi’s government turned to ASEAN for help. ASEAN’s Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Center) was recruited to assist. Little was known about the center, but it is essentially a coordinating body for regional disaster response. This is a very different approach to life-saving humanitarian assistance in a war zone.

The ASEAN Emergency Response and Assessment preliminary report was produced in 2019 to prepare for the potential return of 500,000 refugees from Bangladesh. Clearly, this was another case of ASEAN taking a ‘lead role’ whilst everyone knew the majority of work would be borne by international donors and UN compliance with the authorities. To date, only a trickle of people have returned from the camps in Cox’s Bazaar, and many of them informally, not through bilateral repatriation. The report included plans for constructing potential transit centers for Rohingya returnees, producing a pamphlet with plans for structures that resembled an IKEA-designed concentration camp. It is a humanitarian reprieve that ASEAN’s efforts were not needed.

Point Four of the Five Point Consensus promises humanitarian assistance through the AHA Center. But how viable is this? The SAC is actively blocking assistance from local and international aid workers and targeting healthcare workers. Can a largely untested disaster response coordinating body, quite likely more gripped by the rapidly spreading Covid-19 cases in the region, actually have any meaningful impact? Or is once again a convenient lead fiction for the UN and international agencies who cannot accept the SAC?

Given the urgent needs throughout Myanmar, anything is worth a try. But ASEAN, being a deeply conservative inter-governmental body with no appetite for risk, is unlikely to pursue the humanitarian solidarity-based approach to aid that is so urgently needed in Myanmar. The junta-controlled Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement has already convened virtual meetings to discuss the ASEAN Secretariat proposal for aid, including “COVID-19 vaccines, medical supplies and humanitarian assistance to Myanmar.”

A more apt ‘Nargis-moment’ came in 2015 when widespread flooding in Myanmar affected millions, sparking massive donation drives and civil society assistance. That widespread spirit of humanitarian concern had nothing to do with ASEAN. In the same year, ASEAN was once again displaying its institutional ineptitude by its ineffective reactions to the Rohingya boat crisis, or what the UN calls “irregular maritime movements.” For several years, as the volume of people fleeing Bangladesh and Rakhine State for Malaysia slowly grew, ASEAN had studiously avoided any comprehensive regional response. Encouraged by Australia, one of ASEAN’s ardent admirers, the crisis was punted into the Bali Process, one of those inoffensive regional talking forums where human tragedies go to die. Appealing to ASEAN to take the lead in the interests of regional stability are often unrewarded.

Comparing the efforts of Surin during Nargis to ASEAN’s latest appointment is farcical. There is a sharp contrast between the efforts of a seasoned, compassionate, secular Muslim diplomat such as Surin and a mediocrity from a medieval Muslim micro-state. For raw power brokers such as Min Aung Hlaing, an empty suit from a country he’s barely heard of, a fundamentalist state of a religion he despises, is the perfect material for the junta’s tried and tested diplomatic ‘rope-a-dope.’ The newly self-appointed prime minister already won round one in Jakarta in April when he agreed to the Five Point Consensus, then blew off the regional grouping soon after.

The rent-an-academic crowd of sage analysts soon endorsed this strategy as the only viable path forward, but it all smacked of cynical resignation. Putting faith in the regional body’s attempts at transformative interventions is always like choosing the cheapest prophylactic. ASEAN’s diplomatic spirit is more a mélange of Caddyshack and Crazy Rich Asians than serious mediation skills. It is one of those fictions we have to live with.

But hiding behind all of this multi-sided mendacity is one singular logic: greed. ASEAN, as much as the West, wants to prioritize trade and security over the welfare of 54 million people in Myanmar. They want the nationwide meltdown to calcify into something that can be managed, not solved. People in Myanmar should brace for the inevitable justification for supporting a new envoy and evoking the mirage of post-Nargis magic as progress in the right direction. Post-pandemic economic regeneration and containment of China have doomed Myanmar to be ASEAN’s next inevitable failure dressed as a conditional success.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues on Myanmar.

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