Will Asean norms, absence of Malaysia’s top diplomat doom Myanmar peace plan?
- Pressure is growing for the bloc to push the junta to fulfil a peace plan, but analysts say Asean is stymied by its rules on consensus and non-interference
- Malaysia’s coming election could also affect Asean’s already limited ability to respond to Myanmar’s crisis if a new coalition takes a ‘less active role’ and replaces vocal foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah
While there was a chance Indonesia would take a more forceful stance when it assumes the chair next month, Myers said “it is unlikely that Asean can escape the limitations imposed by its norms on consensus and non-interference”, pointing out that the more authoritarian countries in the bloc opposed acting more forcefully against the junta.
In the run-up to the meeting in Jakarta, Asean had faced growing pressure to act firmly against Myanmar’s military regime, which has been ignoring calls to end a brutal crackdown on political opponents and civilian protesters since the coup in February last year.
Host Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi said Asean’s top diplomats had voiced concerns about the failure to move ahead.
Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan expressed the city state’s “deep disappointment at the lack of progress” by the junta on implementing the agreed plan, according to a ministry statement.
While Indonesian officials revealed that Asean would engage with opponents of Myanmar’s junta as part of an agreement to strengthen the regional peace initiative, this is simply an acknowledgement that entities other than the junta-run State Administration Council have a role to play, said analyst Sharon Seah.
“(This) is not a large shift,” said Seah, a senior fellow and coordinator, at the Asean Studies Centre in Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Asean should be thinking of strengthening the terms of reference for the special envoy which includes a longer term of more than a year, she added.
“Should the special envoy be the foreign minister of the chair country?” Seah asked, adding that the foreign minister of that year would have many duties hosting many Asean meetings and managing bilateral ties. “It would be worth thinking of how to resource the special envoy properly.”
Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn is currently Asean’s special envoy to Myanmar.
The Saifuddin factor
“Saifuddin’s absence, which effectively reduced the number of action-focused officials in the room, speaks to that fact,” he said.
Wilson Center’s Myers said there was also the possibility that Saifuddin would be replaced after the general election, and a new governing coalition in Malaysia might take a “different, less active role” on Myanmar.
Myanmar’s military government earlier this week warned that any pressure from its Southeast Asian neighbours to put a time frame on a peace plan would create “negative implications”.
Tan See Seng, research adviser at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the military junta felt no compulsion to adhere to Asean’s peace plan.
“Given the junta’s executions of the activists, I wonder if the threat of ‘negative implications’ hints – God forbid – at more killings to come,” Tan said.
Tan added that Asean member states in the “more determined” category of taking a tougher approach towards Myanmar, were more concerned about declining support for Asean from external dialogue partners such as the United States.
The falling support can be seen by the withdrawal of the US Department of Defence from the two-day Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus experts’ working group on counter terrorism co-chaired in July, Tan noted.
“With Asean centrality at stake, the proactive among Asean members feel compelled to take more drastic action,” Tan said.
Wilson Center’s Myers said that although much of the international community had failed to act forcefully to Myanmar, the pro-democracy movement has managed to organise and successfully challenge the junta on the battlefield.
“While the war is likely to drag on for some time, the Myanmar military has lost control over a large swathe of Myanmar’s rural areas, and it is taking significant losses,” he said.
“Expanded international support for the National Unity Government and the wider anti-junta movement would go a long way towards applying serious pressure on the junta.
“In my assessment, the crisis is likely to be resolved on the battlefield. Neither the junta nor the NUG are willing to negotiate now,” Myers said, referring to the Myanmar government in exile formed by lawmakers ousted during the coup.