On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military, infamously known as Tatmadaw, overthrew the democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). President Win Myint and leaders closely affiliated with the NLD, including hundreds of civil activists and journalists, are in military custody.
According to Myanmar’s monitoring group, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, approximately 800 people have been killed and more than 5,400 detained in the Tatmadaw’s brutal crackdown on anti-coup protestors.
ASEAN was caught by surprise but quickly realized that should the crackdown on Myanmar continue unabated, it would significantly tarnish the regional grouping’s credibility in the international community's eyes. Fortunately, at the outset, regional leaders have worked together toward restoring the democratic process rather than isolating the military junta. ASEAN’s initiative has come into fruition after regional leaders eventually met in a special session in Jakarta on Apr. 24, with observers and spectators, in and outside the region focused on the attendance of General Min Aung Hlaing.
The key takeaway from the session is ASEAN’s measures in addressing the devastating situation on the ground---a Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar. Of the five, three are outcomes ASEAN is seeking: the cessation of violence, the delivery of humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre), and kickstarting political peace dialogue to end violence. The other two are mechanisms to achieve the outcomes above: an appointment of Special Envoy (SE) and a visit by the delegation headed by SE to Myanmar to meet all parties concerned.
Nevertheless, what is alarming is that the SE is yet to be appointed by the group, now six weeks after the Jakarta meeting. As the report suggested, there is tension among the member states---particularly between Indonesia and Thailand over the SE appointment; however, other issues might require ASEAN’s attention, especially in ensuring the SE and the delegation could undertake this crucial task.
Firstly, the SE and delegation mission to Myanmar may require a financial commitment on the part of the bloc to ensure the effective implementation of the consensus. While COVID-19 is generally plaguing ASEAN member states economies, ASEAN should welcome its decorated fund, should it set one, for other international organizations to contribute. The financial aspect is an imperative to support the delegation in its mission.
Secondly, clear-cut Terms of Reference (TOR) and milestones should be spelled out for the SE to undertake the mission. While the member states are still deciding on the SE, they might also deliberate on the TOR as guidance for the delegation to undertake the mission.
Thirdly, the SE and delegation shall ensure its mission to be inclusive. Negotiations with all stakeholders involved are imperative to ensure all views and opinions, including those of pro-democracy groups and ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi. However, early reports indicated that the Tatmadaw’s gesture is rather noncommittal, even to the bloc’s. This, especially after the special meeting in Jakarta suggested by ASEAN’s five-point consensus to be only considered after Myanmar stabilizes.
However, recent development signaled the military junta’s growing confidence over the control of the country and started to warm up receiving regional and international visits. First, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the chief of Myanmar’s military, just met with Brunei’s Second Minister for Foreign Affairs, Erywan Pehin Yusof (Brunei is the current chair), and ASEAN Secretary-General, Lim Jock Hoi, in Naypyitaw on June 4. This was the first visit by ASEAN officials after the coup, amid pending appointment of the SE. This is seen by many as efforts to lay a foundation and early assessment before dispatch of a special ASEAN envoy and humanitarian aid to Myanmar. According to a news report, ASEAN ambassadors were also invited to meet up after the meeting.
Secondly, just before the visit by the regional bloc, the military junta had a meeting with Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This was the first visit by senior Western official since the Feb. 1 coup. In the meeting, Maurer requested a resumption of prison visits by ICRC and more significant humanitarian assistance in conflict zones, to which Min Aung Hlaing “was not refused”.
Indeed, the acceptance of official visits indicates the willingness of the military junta to open dialogue with the international community. Furthermore, this may open a window of opportunity, which had been shut before, especially for the SE and delegation to constructively play a leading role in negotiations with all stakeholders in Myanmar. The delegation must receive political support and sufficient resources to deliver the five-point consensus effectively.
The following months, and perhaps even a year, may be critical to the region, as recent Myanmar's unrest has put ASEAN in the test. But ASEAN diplomacy, specifically favoring constructive engagement over isolation and pressure, may well be graded, and the bloc can’t afford for its credibility to be tarnished.
Nik Luqman is Fellow at the Nippon Foundation-Institute of Malaysia and International Studies, National University of Malaysia.