When leaders of the Asean member states gathered in Jakarta, Indonesia, at the end of April for the first in-person meeting since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, few of them expected decisive action on the most pressing matter at hand: the military coup in Myanmar.
They were somewhat surprised, therefore, by the consensus to appoint a special envoy and effectively intervene with offers of dialogue to restore civilian rule and humanitarian assistance.
The Asean representatives were most surprised that the leader who helped gel the Myanmar consensus was Cambodia prime minister Hun Sen, who seized power in 1997 and has gradually curbed the country’s democracy. In what was reportedly a spirited intervention, Asean’s longest serving prime minister spoke about how Asean and the international community rescued Cambodia after a brutal civil war at the end of the 1980s.
Therefore as Cambodia assumes the chairmanship of Asean in January and steers the group through the next year, there are high expectations the diplomatic group can influence Myanmar’s military leaders and address Southeast Asia’s most serious crisis.
Hopes were raised after Asean foreign ministers agreed that Myanmar military leaders, including general Min Aung Hlaing, would be excluded from their virtual summit at the end of October. Although officially presented as a ‘time-out’ for Myanmar, allowing the country to settle its affairs, most observers read the move as a bid to save Asean’s credibility in the eyes of other world leaders who held a separate summit with the group the same week.
Moving forward, there are three major challenges ahead.
The first is that Asean is weak and vulnerable. The ten-member association has never been so weakly led and poorly served. Regional leaders are either distracted by domestic affairs, in administrative transition or uninterested in regional diplomacy. Frequent interaction and official bargaining has been severely disrupted for the past two years by the pandemic, which has effectively ended face-to-face meetings.
The second problem for Asean is a subversion of its geo-political weight. The struggle for primacy between the US and China has dealt a blow to the bloc’s central role in managing regional security. The world is banking on Asean negotiating a Myanmar solution, but the larger powers don’t help by bypassing the group on security issues, such as the new Aukus arrangement involving Australia, the US and the UK in which Asean leaders were not consulted. The arrangement raises legitimate questions about why Myanmar’s military leaders should fear Asean’s intervention, when they can speak directly to India, China and Russia.
Finally, all efforts have failed to engage Myanmar’s military leadership through the offices of the Asean special envoy, initially appointed under Brunei’s chairmanship. Brunei deputy foreign minister Eryawan Yusoff made repeated attempts to visit Myanmar, but his insistence on meetings with jailed state counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was flatly refused. There were even disputes and misunderstandings over a modest amount of proposed humanitarian aid from Asean.
As a result, Asean leaders feel bruised and played by Myanmar’s military regime and the larger powers, which seem content to transfer all the risks of inaction to the bloc while insisting it must lead on the issue.
There is a great deal now hanging on whether Cambodia can conduct more effective diplomacy. Hun Sen is the country’s sole decision-maker and he is thought to favour establishing a task force led by a new special envoy to engage with Myanmar when Brunei’s mandate ends in December.
The immediate hurdle will be Myanmar’s defiant response to a diplomatic block on its military leaders. Soe Win, the vice-senior general and second in command of Myanmar’s junta, accused the bloc of breaching its own consensus and non-interference rules and insisted no foreigners would have access to Aung San Suu Kyi.
There seems to be a lack of consensus among Asean leaders over how rigidly the non-interference principle applies to the current Myanmar situation. Malaysia deputy foreign minister Datuk Kamarudin Jaffar told the Malaysian parliament he believed Asean’s bedrock non-interference policy “did not stop Asean members from expressing their views, intervening or even taking action.” Thailand and Vietnam, as well as smaller states like Singapore, have taken a more conservative view.
Cambodia’s ability to navigate the narrow space left for engagement with Myanmar could be hampered by its own conservative mindset. Foreign minister Phra Sokkhon has a military background, while Hun Sen’s path to power has not fully embraced the democratic model; in recent years he has jailed some opposition leaders and forced others into exile. Cambodian diplomats also are not as well connected in the region than those from other member states.
There is increasing pressure on Asean member states to engage more openly with Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), which was established by civilians opposed to the February coup. Questions remain about the effectiveness of the largely exiled group of ministers, which is connected to an armed resistance on the ground, and how close its representatives are to establishing a base inside the country. Many Western governments have openly or publicly engaged with the NUG, which has appointed an envoy to Asean, though contacts with member states remain quiet and mostly unofficial.
Cambodia’s ability to navigate the narrow space left for engagement with Myanmar could be hampered by its own conservative mindset
In preparation for its forthcoming Asean chairmanship, Cambodia should appoint a more effective envoy, or even a concert of envoys, from influential member states to engage with Myanmar. Quiet diplomacy and persuasion should be attempted instead of public displays that become laden with conditions.
Coordinating closely with the UN, Cambodia must negotiate access to areas badly in need of humanitarian aid. Political dialogue realistically may be some way off, but preparatory discussions could be facilitated on the junta’s stated aim to hold elections in 2023 with the help of civil society, perhaps beginning outside the country.
Freezing Myanmar out of Asean meetings is not a long-term solution. Sustained violence and fighting in border areas controlled by ethnic armed groups could lead to some regions becoming effectively autonomous, opening opportunities for interference from Myanmar’s two largest neighbours, India and China. Transnational crime will likely prosper with an increase of internally displaced people, which already number more than 220,000, who could begin appearing on Thailand’s border or crossing the Andaman Sea or land in Indonesia and Malaysia.
As Asean’s annual chairmanship passes to Cambodia, the regional implications of the Myanmar crisis present a strong argument for adapting the group’s dogmatic insistence on non-interference to the reality of the current political turbulence in the region.
Michael Vatikiotis is a writer and journalist with four decades of experience in Southeast Asia. He is the author of Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia.