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Q&A: ASEAN Is Showing Teeth To Myanmar

The seat for Myanmar's delegation remains vacant at the 18th East Asia Summit as part of the 43rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Jakarta on September 7, 2023. Yasuyoshi CHIBA / POOL / AFP

On the first day of the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, the group leaders released a review on the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus (5PC), which was put out in 2021 to help resolve the crisis in Myanmar. 

The document called out the Myanmar Armed Forces in particular to de-escalate violence. Another highlight was a reaffirmation of the decision to bar Myanmar’s military junta from attending future summits. It also said that the Philippines will chair ASEAN in 2026, skipping Myanmar’s turn as it did in 2006. 

I spoke with Fitriani Bintang Timur, a Visiting Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) who has expertise in Southeast Asian cybersecurity, peacekeeping, radical and extremist groups, Indonesian politics, and foreign policy, to understand more about what this review document means to the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. 

Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

ANTONIA TIMMERMAN: What do you make of ASEAN’s newly released review on the 5PC implementation? Can we say that this is good progress for ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar crisis?

FITRI BINTANG TIMUR: I think this document is quite strong and it shows that ASEAN has teeth and that it’s capable of making decisions using the ‘ASEAN minus X’ mechanism (in this case, minus Myanmar) to encourage the implementation of the 5PC. 

It urged all relevant parties in Myanmar, and the Myanmar Armed Forces in particular, to reduce the escalation of violence and stop targeted attacks on civilians. It also supported the decision of the previous ASEAN Summit regarding only allowing non-political representatives of Myanmar at the ASEAN Summit and the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting so that the military generals are not allowed to attend.

The document also said that the Philippines will become Chair of ASEAN in 2026 and after that, it will continue to other member countries based on the alphabet. So it looks like Myanmar will be skipped for chairmanship like how it was in 2006. 

The difference is that in 2006, Myanmar still had the decency to hand over the chairmanship itself. The diplomacy was more polite. This time, with this document, it is ASEAN who decides to skip Myanmar unless there are significant changes to the conflict. ASEAN might be burning bridges with Myanmar, though I hope not. 

In Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs response to the document, they called out ASEAN on the “fundamental principles of the ASEAN Charter, especially non-interference in the internal affairs of the member states.”If Myanmar decides to leave or disengage from ASEAN, ASEAN will no longer have any impact on Myanmar. 

ANTONIA TIMMERMAN: That’s right. Shortly after the document’s release, Myanmar’s foreign affairs ministry came out and rejected this review. In this case, do you think that the document will have a real influence, a real push for a resolution of the conflict?

FITRI BINTANG TIMUR: To determine that, we have to wait until after the summit. 

In my opinion, ASEAN foreign ministers need to carry out diplomacy with Myanmar and also with China. Why with China? If Myanmar cuts ties with ASEAN, then the bloc will not have the power to pressure Myanmar anymore. But Myanmar is more dependent on China. 

ASEAN needs to ask China and Russia to intervene in Myanmar, to not send weapons, and to follow the embargo implemented by Western countries. This needs to be done with the intention that the military junta becomes willing to lay down its arms and carry out peace negotiations. 

Apart from that, it is necessary to prepare a “face-saving” scenario, such as deciding where the junta can go for exile. In addition, we also need to solve the situation of identity politics, religious politics, and ethnic politics in Myanmar itself which has led to this crisis, because if it’s just the junta who leaves, the problems in that country will not be resolved. 

ANTONIA TIMMERMAN: It’s very interesting when you mentioned lobbying China regarding Myanmar. Has ASEAN attempted to lobby China so that it’s willing to persuade the junta into peaceful negotiations?

FITRI BINTANG TIMUR: Yes, definitely. However, any diplomatic outcome always takes a while. In 2021, the ASEAN foreign minister met with China. Indeed there is no written statement yet [from the diplomacy efforts]. A worrying scenario is that if Myanmar becomes a conflict proxy for great powers. For example, China takes Myanmar’s side while the West supports ASEAN to handle the junta. 

But, it seems like neither the West nor ASEAN will intervene. The West is busy with its own problems. The United States will hold an election, while Europe is occupied with Ukraine. ASEAN could perhaps turn to middle powers in the region like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India [for help], but these countries are not as direct as the US or Europe when it comes to human rights, and they more or less are still dependent on trade with China. 

In conclusion, I think this document gives ASEAN a good image, making it look strong and have principles, but dialogue and diplomacy with Myanmar and with the countries who support peaceful solutions will still go on. 

Fitriani’s research covers Southeast Asian cybersecurity, peacekeeping, radical and extremist groups, Indonesian politics and foreign policy, as well as the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. At the IISS, Fitriani works on regional cyber cooperation and military digitalization efforts.

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