Grouping needs to find long-term solution to Myanmar crisis if it doesn’t want to lose ‘central’ role in regional affairs. 

IT is a decision as unprecedented as it is risky. After months of agonising over what to do about Myanmar, a group of Asean countries have pushed the regional organisation to go the furthest it has ever been to castigate a fellow member state.  

A delicately worded statement released on 16 October by Brunei, the current Asean chair, announced that the organisation had decided to exclude Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing from the forthcoming Asean summits. Myanmar has been asked to nominate a “non-political representative” instead.   

What a “non-political representative” means and whether Myanmar will nominate one remains to be seen. It is conceivable that Myanmar would simply give the summits a miss. On this score, Asean seems to be putting up a brave face, with the chair’s statement noting the “reservations from the Myanmar representative”.  

The move reflects the festering impatience of a group of at least five Asean member states – the most vocal of which are Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – over Myanmar’s lack of progress in implementing Asean’s five-point consensus, which was designed to demonstrate a modicum of effort to return Myanmar to normalcy following the 1 February coup. 

The fact that the other Asean member states agreed to this remarkable step, however grudgingly, shows that the realisation of the risk to Asean’s reputation has finally struck home. Since the coup and as shots were fired against protesters in city after town after village in Myanmar, observers have repeatedly warned that inaction by Asean is simply untenable.  

Earlier this month, the UN secretary-general went as far as to postpone a meeting with Asean foreign ministers, fearing that being in the same virtual room as the Myanmar representative would amount to lending legitimacy to the junta.  

Other countries – especially Asean’s dialogue partners from the West – would similarly be reluctant to participate in meetings that involve Myanmar. Uncertainties over whether their leaders would show up for the East Asia Summit – which is always held back-to-back with an Asean Summit at this time of year – may have helped tip the balance against Aung Hlaing’s attendance. A decision by, say, US President Joseph Biden not to show up or instead send a junior representative would cast a pall over Asean’s much vaunted “centrality” in regional affairs. 

Not inviting the Myanmar junta to the upcoming summit may signal Asean’s frustration with Naypyidaw, but it does little to mitigate the crisis there or its regional ramifications. Asean needs to take stock and strategise. Pic courtesy of Unsplash

Within the cavernous buildings in Naypyidaw where Myanmar’s military leaders work, Asean’s decision will doubtless be seen as a stinging rebuke. Membership in Asean plays a part in bolstering the regime’s legitimacy both at home and abroad, providing political cover which the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar armed forces are known, has exploited successfully thus far. Asean also expands Myanmar’s options on the international stage: the country perennially worries about being overly dependent on relations with China and India. 

Nevertheless, Asean’s ability to influence the decisions of Myanmar’s generals remains limited. For the Tatmadaw, the civil conflict in Myanmar has become existential: they feel they need to emerge on top of this to survive as an institution. At present, they remain disinclined to compromise. 

Not inviting the State Administration Council (SAC), the name the Myanmar junta calls itself, to the upcoming summit may signal Asean’s frustration with Naypyidaw, but it does little to mitigate the crisis there or its regional ramifications. Asean needs to take stock and strategise.   

First, it is important for Asean to maintain a balanced approach. Where it was previously criticised for being all carrot and no stick, it now must ensure that the stick is used strategically and sparingly. This means Asean must continue to engage with the junta – they are key stakeholders and will have a say in the future of Myanmar.  

Second, while Asean might not be able to engage the exiled National Unity Government openly, this should not prevent member states from reaching out. Some already have. Asean and its member states, in cooperation with key dialogue partners like India, China and Japan, can work on a dual-track process of encouraging political reconciliation and a more transparent and unhindered system of aid delivery. 

Third, seeing how the troubles in Myanmar look set to beguile the region for the long term, Asean must pave the way towards setting up a working group on Myanmar, which also consists of Track Two and civil society practitioners that can function continuously without depending on the rotating position of the chair. This does not entail minimising the leadership or coordinating efforts of the chair but will instead allow for a greater degree of continuity and coherence in engagement with Myanmar for the long run.   

There is no quick fix to Asean’s Myanmar dilemma. Nor is there a single path towards resolving its many layers of political, economic and humanitarian crises. Asean, therefore, needs to engage in and sustain multiple tracks of initiatives for there to be even the slightest chance of success. It will be a complex endeavour and concurrent coordinated approaches needs to be in place. Identifying and engaging with experienced partners from both the government and non-governmental sector would ensure a better chance for a managed, balanced and cooperative approach towards a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

This article also appeared in New Straits Times on 19 October 2021.

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