Crowds of bikers slowly merged towards a single lane to avoid a line of road rollers laying new tar on one of Phnom Penh’s main roads. Just weeks before the ASEAN Summit 2022 held in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian government has opted to refine the capital’s appearance by polishing boulevards, bridges and sidewalks.
Over the next few days, in the Kingdom’s spruced up capital, regional leaders are expected to discuss a range of regional security issues, such as the South China Sea dispute, rampant human trafficking, and the effects of the Ukraine-Russia war on Southeast Asia. But analysts say the Myanmar crisis will likely be at the top of the agenda.
The Myanmar military toppled the country’s democratically elected government in February 2021. Since then, the regime has rolled out a campaign of violence to quash armed resistance groups or anyone actively engaging in the dissidence throughout the country, killing thousands.
The coup has produced an ongoing humanitarian crisis, with the international community criticising ASEAN for not doing enough to solve, or even adequately condemn the conflict. The decision to exclude Myanmar military representatives from this summit is noteworthy, analysts say, but doesn’t necessarily mean ASEAN will take considerable action to resolve the delicate situation.
Matthew Smith, the chief executive officer of the human rights watchdog, Fortify Rights, told the Globe that the bloc has a long history of failing to address major crises.
“ASEAN has never been effective at responding to mass atrocity crimes and threats to international peace and security,” Smith said. “And that fact is a massive blight on its sinking [human rights] record.”
Although Cambodia claims it is committed to the Five-Point Consensus, an agreement among regional leaders to resolve the crisis in Myanmar, the conflict is testing ASEAN leadership.
The Five-Point Consensus is an agreement to end violence, refrain from dialogue among all junta parties in the regime, the appointment of a Special Envoy to facilitate discussions, offer humanitarian assistance, and a visit to Myanmar by the selected Special Envoy. In theory, Myanmar brass must not participate in regional meetings, according to the consensus.
But on 10 October, a leaked document released by Fortify Rights, showed that the junta has attempted to maintain participation in all ASEAN meetings apart from summits and foreign minister’s meetings. The document states that in “other ministerial meetings shall maintain the status quo,” meaning that junta representatives will be welcomed at those meetings, according to Fortify Rights, adding that this signals that the junta is doing everything it can to maintain legitimacy within the bloc.
“ASEAN should support a global arms embargo on the Myanmar military, take action to help block the flow of revenue to the junta, and refuse to acknowledge the junta,” Smith said.
Yet Pich Charadine, the deputy executive director of The Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), told the Globe that ASEAN is making productive steps in attempts to resolve the crisis, but it will still take more.
“One or two summits would not be able to resolve the ongoing conflict in the region,” Charadine said. “It takes a much stronger political will and collective efforts in tackling the enduring crisis in such a complicated issue like the Myanmar conflict.”
As the crisis in Myanmar continues, many say the bloc must do more to reduce the atrocities in the coup’s fallout.
In a Human Rights Watch statement, the rights group criticised ASEAN leaders for not carrying out their “pledge” to solve the crisis. “Myanmar’s refusal to meet the consensus commitments has exposed fractures within ASEAN,” the statement reads.
“Several ASEAN countries – notably Malaysia and Indonesia, often alongside Singapore and the Philippines – have publicly criticised the junta’s intransigence, calling for a continued ban on political representatives from future summits,” the HRW statement reads. “However, Cambodia, this year’s ASEAN chair, has renewed engagement with the junta.”
This isn’t the first time ASEAN as a bloc has had to respond to conflict and security threats. From the South China Sea dispute, to a thriving drug trade operating across the region’s borders, to other refugee crises such as the mass exodus of Rohingya refugees in 2017, ASEAN has largely remained nondiscriminatory.
Tensions in the South China Sea remain a test for ASEAN. China’s sweeping territorial claims over the area have been a growing source of geopolitical tension.
China’s rivalries and relations with various Southeast Asian countries have caused pressure within the bloc. Vietnam and the Philippines have had long standing conflicts with the East Asian superpower over the South China Sea territories, while countries such as Laos and Cambodia, which rely heavily on Beijing for investment and development, tend towards a more conciliatory approach.
Charadine explained that the complexity of the South China Sea dispute signals ASEAN’s struggle to come up with concrete solutions when assessing serious regional concerns. “The underlying South China Sea issue complicated the process and the full story has never been fully grasped, let alone be comprehensively explained,” Charadine said.
Jakarta will become the next ASEAN Chair, but its approach will have to be very different in order to solve some of the region’s most pressing crises, according to Mengdavid Thong, a research fellow at the think-tank Asian Vision Institute.
Mengdavid also emphasised that Indonesia’s powerful role in terms of military power, economy and diplomatic relations with other superpowers will be the keys that could maintain and strengthen ASEAN. Jarkarta’s main focus should be centrality, neutrality and promotion of ASEAN-led initiative and economic recovery plans, he proposed.
More so, he said Indonesia will take a harder position on solving the region’s conflicts, and worries the bloc will resort to tapping superpowers like the U.S. or China for assistance.
“What concerns me is that Indonesia will take a tougher stance toward the South China Sea and Myanmar crisis, and will try to involve more superpowers into the regional issues,” he said.
For Smith of Fortify Rights, all regional leaders must refuse to acknowledge the Myanmar military in any capacity. “Junta representatives have no business attending ASEAN summits, and excluding it in full sends an important reminder to everyone that the sit-tat (Myanmar military) is not the government of Myanmar.”