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The Special Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta. Photo: Indonesian Foreign Ministry / AFP

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
As frustration builds within Asean on the lack of progress in solving Myanmar’s political crisis, concerns of an “internal rupture” and the coming Malaysian election could affect the bloc’s ability to pressure the junta at the regional leaders’ summit next month, analysts say.
When Southeast Asian foreign ministers met last week, they said they were “even more determined” to push the junta to fulfil a peace plan to stop violence and bloodshed that has been ongoing since the coup in February last year.
Absent at the meeting was Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah, one of the strongest advocates on pressing Asean to take firmer measures on Myanmar and calling for more engagement with the country’s ousted lawmakers. Malaysia is due for a general election on November 19.
Lucas Myers, programme coordinator and associate for Southeast Asia at The Wilson Center’s Asia Programme, said Asean’s statement after the Thursday meeting reflected both frustration with the junta and growing pressure to act more forcefully on the Myanmar crisis. “But it does not signal more tangible steps before November’s meeting,” he said.

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.

Indonesian rights group pushes for law change to prosecute Myanmar junta

Myers said although Malaysia and Indonesia in particular were increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress, “no one in Asean wants to be seen as weakening the organisation by getting too far ahead of the others or causing an internal rupture”.

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.

Current Asean chair Cambodia said on Thursday that the meeting to discuss the Myanmar crisis reaffirmed the importance and relevance of the peace agreement, also known as the Five-Point Consensus.

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.


At least 11 children dead in Myanmar after military air strike reportedly targeting rebels

At least 11 children dead in Myanmar after military air strike reportedly targeting rebels

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.

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and UN Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer speak at a joint news conference on the Myanmar crisis on July 26, 2022. Photo: Malaysia Information Ministry/EPA-EFE

The Saifuddin factor

Charles Dunst, an associate at the business advisory firm Asia Group, said that campaigning ahead of Malaysia’s national polls would probably hurt Asean’s already limited ability to respond to the Myanmar crisis.

“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.

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 See Seng, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

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.

The Asean Special Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta. Photo: AFP

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.