ASEAN brings hope for Myanmar at leaders meeting: experts

By Trung Nhan   April 26, 2021 | 04:48 pm PT
ASEAN brings hope for Myanmar at leaders meeting: experts
ASEAN top officials attend the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 24, 2021. Photo by ASEAN.
The consensus ASEAN managed to achieve with Myanmar's military head is the first positive step in easing the nation's long-lasting crisis, experts said.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member state leaders reached a five-point consensus calling for an end to violence in Myanmar at ASEAN Leaders' Meeting last Saturday.

Alistair Cook, Research Program coordinator and senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Myanmar, said ASEAN showed its potential with the joint statement.

"ASEAN united to agree on a framework of action. Now is the time for it to act. This is a good start to support the people of Myanmar," he said.

He said the chairman's statement at ASEAN Leaders' Meeting presented key contents for ASEAN to take the leading role, as well as for its member countries and the international community to make contributions. "ASEAN members and the international community should wholeheartedly support this effort," he stressed.

The consensus included in the statement comprises five points: there shall be an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties shall exercise the utmost restraint; constructive dialogue among all parties concerned shall commence to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people; a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair shall facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, with the assistance of the Secretary General of ASEAN; ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance through AHA Center, an intergovernmental organization, established with the aim to facilitate cooperation and coordination of disaster management among ASEAN member states; and the special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.

The statement was released following a closed meeting of ASEAN leaders on the crisis that has lasted for almost three months in Myanmar.

The meeting was held in Indonesia and senior general Min Aung Hlaing, head of the Myanmar military, represented the nation at the event.

The leaders of Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Brunei were at the meeting, along with the foreign ministers of Laos, Thailand and the Philippines.

Min Aung Hlaing (L), head of the Myanmar military, arrives in Jakarta, Indonesia for the ASEAN Leaders Meeting on April 24, 2021. Photo by Reuters.

Min Aung Hlaing (L), head of the Myanmar military, arrives in Jakarta, Indonesia for the ASEAN Leaders' Meeting on April 24, 2021. Photo by Reuters.

Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a U.S. think tank, commented on the statement as "strong language from ASEAN."

But he noted "it's a little unclear if this is the consensus of Min Aung Hlaing or just the nine ASEAN leaders," but he believes all parties "shall do each of the five."

He also highlighted another point in the statement, saying ASEAN leaders have also ordered their foreign ministers to meet with the U.S. and China.

"We underscored the importance of further strengthening ASEAN centrality and unity in our engagement with ASEAN’s external partners through ASEAN-led mechanisms in order to build mutual trust and confidence as well as reinforce an open, transparent, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture with ASEAN at the center. In this regard, we instructed ASEAN foreign ministers to hold their meetings with China and the U.S. as soon as possible, prior to the 54th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting," the statement read.

Myanmar's military government has opposed intervention from the U.S. in the country's political situation. Washington, meanwhile, has imposed the most sanctions aimed at the personal benefits and economic interests of Myanmar’s military.

Myanmar has fallen into crisis since the army seized power and detained government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and much of her party leadership on Feb. 1. Hundreds of thousands of people have been coming onto the streets to protest the coup and more than 700 people have been killed.

Experts expect ASEAN to play its role as an intermediary to help find a peaceful solution to the situation in Myanmar.

The Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Teodoro Locsin Jr, described the meeting as "a candid, family-style manner meeting where ASEAN member states expressed their concerns on the mounting death toll and the escalating violence against civilians following the takeover of the government by the Myanmar armed forces, locally known as the Tatmadaw."

Hunter Marston, PhD student at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University, said ASEAN has played an important part in the political process in Myanmar.

ASEAN should make every effort to reach out to the National Unity Government of Myanmar and ensure the Myanmar military enters a dialogue with protesting citizens as promised.

The National Unity Government is a body claiming to be the legitimate government of Myanmar, existing in parallel with the State Administration Council military junta.

"The bloc needs to act quickly, building toward a political solution. The current situation is very difficult for us to imagine a scenario where the military will accept concessions," Marston said.

He said the five-point consensus comes out of expectation, yet it has still ignored some of the key issues in tensions between protesters and military authorities, such as the issue of releasing political prisoners.

The ASEAN chairman’s statement did address this issue but it did not appear in the consensus, which suggested related parties seem to have discussed the issue but have not found a common voice, he said.

"Consensus has also remained unclear when it comes to the request to establish a dialogue among parties. We can imagine the scenario in which General Min Aung Hlaing refuses to have a dialogue with the United National Government because the military considers this organization as against the law. More action is needed for the special envoy to ensure the military will enter a dialogue," he noted.

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