PHNOM PENH - Asean on Friday stopped short of expanding its current exclusion of Myanmar junta ministers from high-level meetings, only saying that it would review Myanmar’s representation at meetings “if the situation so requires”.
It further tasked Asean foreign ministers to develop a concrete plan to implement its stalled “five-point consensus”, its road map for peace in Myanmar.
The decisions were a series of measures announced by the 10-nation bloc trying to resolve the political and humanitarian crisis that has gripped its member state since the February 2021 coup.
It was made after the 40th and 41st Asean summits in Phnom Penh – both held on the same day – where Myanmar again was not represented.
To penalise the junta for dragging its feet over an Asean road map for peace, the bloc has effectively barred Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin from high-level Asean meetings by inviting a “non-political representative” from the country.
The junta alleges this amounts to interference and refuses to send representatives.
It did the same at Friday’s summit, where a chair was left empty in front of the Myanmar flag during the opening ceremony.
Speaking at the 41st Asean Summit in Phnom Penh on Friday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “Given the worsening situation, for us to weaken this position would be the wrong thing to do. Even to maintain this position fails to reflect the gravity of the situation.”
With no political representatives from Myanmar at ministerial-level meetings, decisions will have to be taken by the remaining nine member states, he added. Asean’s work must carry on, he stressed. “We cannot be held back, or held hostage by one member state’s inability to fulfil its obligations.”
Political violence has worsened since the road map was drafted in April 2021. Junta-backed militias are working with soldiers to attack locals who are against the government, while the opposition groups are assassinating junta officials. More than 7,000 civilians have been killed and over one million people forced to leave their homes since February 2021.
The junta has imprisoned key political rivals, including deposed state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, while making plans to hold fresh elections under new rules that will put its allies at an advantage.
Meanwhile, observers warn that a prolonged crisis in Myanmar hampers Asean’s ability to withstand the crosswinds of the intensifying rivalry between China and the United States.
The Asean statement pledges to engage with “all” of Myanmar’s stakeholders “soon”.
“Engagement will be done in a flexible and informal manner, primarily undertaken by the special envoy of the Asean chair on Myanmar due to the neutrality that is inherent in his/her mandate,” it said.
While saying all parties bearing arms should be fairly held accountable for their actions, it also noted the Myanmar Armed Forces had the largest military force in the country.
The statement further empowered Asean and its humanitarian aid agency “with some degree of autonomy to facilitate the humanitarian assistance in Myanmar”.
Asean, while negotiating with the junta, has up to this point not openly engaged with groups like the shadow National Unity Government opposing the military regime – something that could just change as Indonesia chairs Asean in 2023 under a rotating arrangement of the bloc.
In his address to fellow leaders on Friday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo stressed that Asean must engage all stakeholders in Myanmar “immediately because only by opening dialogues with all parties can Asean facilitate a national dialogue as mandated by the five-point consensus”.
He further said that, out of respect for Asean’s principle of non-interference, Asean will not support a general election that is not inclusive and not prepared based on a national dialogue.
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Moe Thuzar told The Straits Times that Asean’s latest decision allows it to review Myanmar’s representation at meetings on a case-by-case basis.
While it perhaps disappointed critics of the Myanmar regime, the statement provides enough flexibility for Indonesia to expand the scope of work in Myanmar next year when it takes over as Asean chair.
“Bearing in mind that the people in Myanmar have faced unprecedented, and in many instances, unimaginable difficulties since February 2021, we have to look to the stronger voices among Asean member states to continue to hold what is important and necessary, and to be a voice of reason.”