ASEAN Under Pressure to Do More on Myanmar as Leaders Gather in Washington

By The Irrawaddy 12 May 2022

Myanmar’s brutal regime has not been invited to the two-day US-ASEAN Special Summit beginning in Washington on Thursday, but “Burma will be a subject of intense deliberation in all of our meetings,” said a senior US administration official, using another name for the country.

Foreign Minister Daw Zin Mar Aung of Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) is in Washington at the same time as the leaders of regional grouping the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). She will not be able to attend the summit but will hold informal meetings with some ASEAN and US officials.

A senior US State Department official said, “We have had diplomatic engagement with the government in exile [the NUG]. We are in discussions about the best way to represent what has transpired in Burma and how to represent that in the meeting.”

The official added, “I think one of the discussions has been to have an empty chair to reflect our dissatisfaction with what’s taken place and our hope for a better path forward.”

Amid the Biden administration’s promises to deepen its engagement with the Indo Pacific Region, including ASEAN, Myanmar is one of the issues currently posing a threat to the bloc’s unity and spirit.

Speaking at the US Institute of Peace, US National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell said the Biden administration would “encourage greater diplomacy” on Myanmar in meetings with the ASEAN leaders in Washington on Thursday and Friday. Campbell, the White House’s “Asia Tsar”, was US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under President Barack Obama and a key architect of his “pivot” to Asia.

Campbell is no stranger to Myanmar, having made a historic visit to the country in 2009 to meet with the country’s top leaders led by strongman U Than Shwe. During his trip, he also met with then-opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who by that time had spent a total of 14 years under house arrest. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who in 2016 was elected the country’s de facto leader with the position of State Counselor, has been detained at an unknown location in Myanmar since the military ousted her government in a coup in February last year, and is facing secret trial by the regime.

Campbell said the 10-nation regional bloc had begun important initiatives on the crisis, including appointing an envoy to carry messages to the generals, but “most of those have not borne fruit.”

“The United States is going to continue its active role working with other partners, but we do want ASEAN to play a more deeply engaged role in the critical diplomacy about the next steps in Burma,” he said. “We hope and expect ASEAN to take real initiatives in terms of how to engage both the current government and the opposition about the way forward.”

Under Obama, the US stepped up its “principled engagement” with both the Myanmar regime and opposition, ostensibly balancing its values and interests in Myanmar. Obama made two historic visits to the country after the 2010 election of a quasi-civilian government, which the following year embarked on what at the time were hailed as far-reaching political and economic reforms.

During his first visit to Myanmar in November 2012—the first by a sitting US president—Obama urged leaders in the country not to extinguish the “flickers of progress that we have seen.” Those “flickers” seem very distant today, with Myanmar back to square one.

Fifteen months on from the military takeover, the junta is still facing public protests as well as armed resistance and insurgencies. In its attempt to counter the growing resistance, the military regime has been brutal,  arresting and imprisoning thousands of people and torching hundreds of villages in the center of the country. Many citizens who are able, including many members of the educated middle class, have fled Myanmar.

ASEAN’s diplomatic efforts have faltered in the face of a lack of cooperation from coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who was excluded from the bloc’s summit in October for his recalcitrance.

The lack of progress in the implementation of ASEAN’s five-point consensus continues to draw sharp criticism.  Current ASEAN chair Cambodia’s requests that the bloc’s special envoy be allowed to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, who has also been detained, have been rejected by the military junta. The regime knows ASEAN is divided and is confident that the bloc, while it may have the occasional carrot to offer, lacks sticks.

So why has the US outsourced the issue to ASEAN, asking it to do more and engage more? Because it is politically convenient?

Human Rights Watch has called for the ditching of the five-point consensus and the adoption of a new approach. “For a year, governments around the world have stalled taking action on Myanmar by standing behind ASEAN’s hollow words—and have nothing to show for it,” the group’s acting Asia Director, Elaine Pearson, said in a statement. “They need to adopt strong measures to deter further atrocities and hold the military accountable, not a flimsy consensus that’s proven its futility.”

Greg Poling, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “The reason that the US and everybody else in the world basically keeps voicing support for the ASEAN five-point consensus is because it passes the buck to ASEAN, either because you don’t have better ideas or because you’re not willing to pursue things that would actually have an impact.” It’s a view that’s hard to argue with.

More recently, some bolder proposals seem to have emerged from within ASEAN to informally engage all stakeholders in Myanmar in an effort to find a breakthrough. Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Abdullah said ASEAN should informally engage the NUG, National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) and Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH).

Increasingly, there is a strong desire for concrete action on Myanmar, rather than empty words.

Human Rights Watch has called on three of ASEAN’s leading nations—Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore—to present Myanmar’s military leadership with “a clear, time-bound approach” and to press for reform by taking moves to restrict its currency reserves and arms imports. The group has also called on Biden to push the regional bloc to abandon the “failed consensus approach” at this week’s US-ASEAN Summit.

Some in ASEAN have called for Myanmar to be expelled from ASEAN. The regime leaders know full well that the special summit will likely produce a few lines over Myanmar and some condemnation, and no more. Meanwhile, the junta continues to keep the country and its citizens hostage, spotlighting the regional bloc’s pathetic failures. Myanmar’s suffering will continue, much to ASEAN’s shame.

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