Vivian Balakrishnan warns of real danger that Myanmar could be headed for civil war

Traffic police stand guard on a street in Yangon on July 19, on the 75th Martyrs' Day. PHOTO: AFP

PHNOM PENH - There is a real danger that the political crisis in Myanmar could turn into a civil war, given how there has been no progress on peace plans that the country had agreed to with Asean, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Friday (Aug 5).

His comments came after the regional grouping had, earlier in the day, published an official document registering its disappointment over the military junta's lack of commitment to implementing these plans.

"I have to be very frank. It's very dire. I think there is a real danger that the coup is sliding into a civil war. There's been no progress on the Asean Five-Point Consensus," Dr Balakrishnan said.

He was speaking to Singapore reporters at the end of the 55th Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting (AMM) and related meetings in Cambodia.

The consensus was drawn up in April last year to bring an end to the chaos following the February 2021 military coup that has killed more than 2,000 people.

Its five points are: an immediate end to violence in the country, dialogue among all parties concerned, the appointment of an Asean special envoy to facilitate mediation, the provision of humanitarian assistance by Asean, and a visit by the special envoy to Myanmar to meet all parties.

Dr Balakrishnan touched on Myanmar's move to execute four activists last month, which went ahead despite appeals by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in his capacity as Asean chairman this year, and Asean Special Envoy on Myanmar Prak Sokhonn, for the sentences to be reconsidered.

"In fact, the timing - the recent executions, or even the earlier bombing by the Tatmadaw (armed forces) - so soon after Prime Minister Hun Sen visits Myanmar, or the special envoy goes to Myanmar, reflects, actually, the high level of cynicism or even outright disrespect for the role of Asean," said Dr Balakrishnan.

In the joint communique agreed upon by all Asean members that is traditionally released after the AMM, the foreign ministers had proposed that its leaders take stock of the military junta's progress in implementing the consensus at their summit in November, in order to decide the best way forward.

"We can't interfere, but if they do not see that there is value in dialogue, national reconciliation and making use of Asean's good offices, then I'm afraid it's a very dire situation," he said of the Myanmar junta.

"How long will this go on for? I've heard estimates - four years to 20 years. I don't know, but I'm pessimistic."

Asked how Asean would define and measure progress in the coming months, Dr Balakrishnan said the ministers are formulating some options that will be on the table when their leaders meet in November, but which he was not at liberty to share.

"Let's not jump the gun, because if, for instance, in the remaining few months, they actually stop the violence, engage across the political spectrum, give access to our special envoy, in particular, let him meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, those will be positive steps," he added.

"I remain pessimistic about what additional pressure would do for the Tatmadaw's thinking. In the end, they have to see that this is a dead end, and the only way the country can move forward is by national reconciliation."

Dr Balakrishnan was also asked about Asean's discussions with India.

He noted that Singapore is currently the country coordinator for Asean-India relations, and elaborated on two broad areas of cooperation.

The first is in the digital sector, and Dr Balakrishnan said that India has strengths in areas such as fintech, digital finance and digital inclusion.

What the country has done with digital identity and payment systems presents opportunities for Asean to explore how it can connect its payment and financial systems, in order to expand opportunities for small businesses across the subcontinent and across South-east Asia, he added.

The second area is economic integration, and Dr Balakrishnan noted that Asean is reviewing its trade in goods agreement with India to facilitate Customs clearance and reduce friction for the movement of goods between the Indian subcontinent and South-east Asia.

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