ASEAN summit is first step toward int'l dialogue on Myanmar crisis: experts

By Trung Nhan   April 24, 2021 | 02:14 am PT
ASEAN summit is first step toward int'l dialogue on Myanmar crisis: experts
Myanmar Army armored vehicles drive in a street after the military seized power in a coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, February 3, 2021. Photo by Reuters.
Experts do not expect major changes to occur as Southeast Asian leaders meet with Myanmar's junta leader on Saturday, but consider this a necessary first step toward dialogue.

The special summit between leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is held in Jakarta, Indonesia on Saturday, chaired by Brunei's Sultan and Prime Minister Hassanal Bolkiah.

Several officials of the association's member states, including those from Myanmar's military junta, have confirmed that the focus of the meeting would be the situation in Myanmar.

Malaysia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Hishammuddin Hussein on Wednesday affirmed that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's junta chief, would be attending the summit. The Myanmar Army's spokesman Zaw Min Tun also confirmed this according to Nikkei Asia.

Dr. Nguyen Thanh Trung, Director of the Center for International Studies under the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University - Ho Chi Minh City, said: "There has been no official dialogue between leaders of Myanmar's military junta and the international community. It can be said that ASEAN's special summit is the first opportunity for the two sides to probe each other's reciprocity and determine to which degree the other party is willing to make concessions."

He agreed with opinions that the summit would be a "necessary test" for both sides, so that ASEAN and Myanmar's military junta could determine each other's level of readiness to engage in dialogue.

Alistair Cook, Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) under Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and an expert on Myanmar affairs, noted that ASEAN is "bound by the mechanism of consensus decision-making" and the international community should not expect the association to act as an "enforcement mechanism" in this crisis.

The difference in standpoint between ASEAN members on Myanmar has been demonstrated in the past three months. Singapore and Indonesia condemned the February 1 coup and the violence in Myanmar, while some other countries such as Thailand maintain the position of not interfering in the internal affairs of other member states. These differences could make it difficult for the region to make joint actions.

However, Cook still highly regarded the importance of the ASEAN summit. He argued that the special summit mechanism "helps gather ASEAN members to find solutions to regional peace and security issues."

This mechanism even allows members to gradually "form a collective response to the situation in Myanmar."

"ASEAN members need an emergency summit to negotiate a framework of action. All of ASEAN are realizing that the organization needs to find a common voice to support the people of Myanmar," Cook said.

Myanmars junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted the elected government in a coup on February 1, presides an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021. Photo by Reuters.

Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted the elected government in a coup on February 1, presides an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021. Photo by Reuters.

One of the issues with a chance for effective dialogue is humanitarian access in Myanmar.

"ASEAN could advocate for humanitarian access. This is a very important point. Some ASEAN members could also have an opportunity to speak more strongly in this regard," said Hunter Marston, PhD student at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

According to Marston, the "ideal scenario" could be "a call to restore democracy and recognize the results of the 2020 general election." However, realistically, the most important point of discussion is the right to humanitarian access, thereby forming a mechanism for special envoys or ASEAN representatives to coordinate with the Myanmar military and maybe even the United Nations," he said.

"The positive point is that both the U.S. and China seem to want ASEAN to take a leading role in this issue. This is an opportunity for ASEAN to play a central role."

The special summit in Jakarta will be held after nearly three months of escalating tension in Myanmar. The military junta has been using force to suppress protests across the country.

International organizations estimated that more than 700 people had died in clashes with security forces. Meanwhile, Myanmar's state media on Thursday asserted that the death toll was only 258 and most of the victims were rioters.

The violence has prompted the U.S. and many Western countries to introduce a series of economic sanctions aimed at the generals and the military's economic interests. The U.S. on Wednesday continued to impose sanctions on two state-owned companies in Myanmar with ties to the military. Pressure from the international community however has yet to make a significant change to the crisis.

"We all know Myanmar's military is no stranger to being isolated by the Western world," Trung noted.

According to him, with the past lessons about tension between the West and Myanmar, as well as the urgency of the current situation, the summit in Jakarta would require an even more subtle approach from both ASEAN and Myanmar."

This is an opportunity. Obviously ASEAN could not play the role of effectively pressuring Myanmar as anticipated by other countries, especially the West. However, forums where ASEAN plays a central role could be an environment where Myanmar's military junta could feel comfortable, opening up a safe mentality for dialogue," Trung said.

"If they don't feel comfortable at multilateral forums, Myanmar's military junta would be willing to continue closing its doors to the world. In order to create effective pressure on Myanmar, it is necessary to create an encouraging environment for the military junta to go to the negotiating table and make concessions on some issues."

Trung suggested that the event in Jakarta could serve as a stepping stone for subsequent opportunities at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) or the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM+). Forums organized by ASEAN but attended by a number of regional powers and Western partners are opportunities for Myanmar's junta to "break the ice."

Cook also shared the same opinion on ASEAN's role in the Myanmar story, suggesting that all ideas for ASEAN to lead joint actions must have the participation of the international community, such as a cooperation mechanism with the United Nations. Many countries across the world have had their own responses.

"The parties need to coordinate their responses to support the people of Myanmar more effectively. ASEAN has the potential to become a platform for this coordination," Cook said.

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