Guest Column

Myanmar Impasse Challenges ASEAN

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 23 February 2022

While the Myanmar quagmire will continue to dominate ASEAN’s agenda under Cambodia and future chairs, one must not forget that the current chair must also deal with a myriad of challenges across all sectors of the grouping’s ongoing cooperation. The much-awaited foreign ministerial retreat last Thursday has once again shown that ASEAN remains a closely knit, pragmatic family.

This sentiment emerged after the chair’s press statement was released. Even though the chair has the prerogative on the final wording, Cambodia invited all members to provide their input, which resulted in an ASEAN-centered statement for all to see. The tone is leaning toward “engagement” rather than “disengagement” with Myanmar. For the first time in nearly a decade, the statement’s section on Myanmar took up more space than the South China Sea dispute.

All the hullabaloo in the first six weeks regarding the chair’s behavior was settled once the ministers met last week. At the retreat, all members expressed support for the current chair’s efforts including the headline-making visit by Prime Minister Hun Sen to Myanmar early last month. ASEAN remains united in implementing the Five-Point Consensus.

Last week, in public remarks, Hun Sen appeared pessimistic on his chances of persuading the junta to implement ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus on resolving the crisis in Myanmar, and seemed to have given up—less than two months into his chairmanship—on making any progress.

RFA quoted him as saying that there are “only 10 more months and 14 days left and my duty [as ASEAN chair] will be finished,” and suggesting, “the next chair of ASEAN take care of the issue.”

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, in his capacity as ASEAN special envoy, will visit Myanmar in the second week of March. The outcome of his visit will be a key factor in determining the future status of the military junta in Naypyitaw, officially known as the State Administration Council, both regionally and internationally.

At the retreat, the ASEAN members had to wrestle with Myanmar’s credentials as the quagmire entered its second year.

Speaking to reporters last week, Singapore Foreign Minister Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan aptly put it that in the coming days there would be so-called “administrative wrinkles” that the ASEAN members will have to smooth out.

There will be some documents that all ASEAN members have to sign. The question most often asked is, who will sign on behalf of Myanmar?

The first document in question is the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). In order for six more countries — namely Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Oman, Qatar and United Arab Emirates — to be formally recognized as observers, all 10 foreign ministers would have to sign the Instruments of Accessions to complete the process.

ASEAN did not invite the regime representatives in previous meetings but invited only non-political representatives. Myanmar has so far refused to send non-political officials.

Some ASEAN members have come up with the idea of allowing Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin to sign on behalf of Myanmar, which would be followed by a joint statement by the rest of the group which explicitly says the minister’s signature does not confer legitimacy on the SAC and its actions. These are some of the delicate issues with which ASEAN will have to come to grips.

In the next few weeks, the SAC has to show that it has made concrete and sufficient progress in implementing the 5PC to deserve further support, otherwise there could be some dramatic changes of heart among “old” ASEAN members and key dialogue partners. Washington, in particular, is closely watching the manner in which ASEAN is engaging the military junta. That could be one reason why the US keeps changing the date of the proposed special ASEAN-US summit in Washington. While the White House has confirmed that it will now be held in March, the exact dates have yet to be announced.

Indeed, this summit would allow the rest of the world to gauge the future of SAC and its nemesis, the National Unity Government. The US Congress is pressing Washington to recognize the NUG. Just as Myanmar is the only ASEAN member not to be invited to the Ministerial Forum for Indo-Pacific in Paris this week, Myanmar also looks set to be the only ASEAN state not to be invited to the summit in DC.

If there is significant progress during Prak Sokhonn’s planned visit, especially pertaining to the end of violence, access to all stakeholders and sites for humanitarian assistance as well as a timeline for political dialogue, Myanmar’s status within ASEAN could change in the next few months. In addition, this time ASEAN foreign ministers encouraged the special envoy to coordinate closely with Noeleen Heyzer, the special envoy of the UN Secretary General on Myanmar.

As the Myanmar stalemate continues, ASEAN will only face more dilemmas.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.

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