Has ASEAN Failed to Resolve the Myanmar Issues? 

Children hold flags of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations during the final day of the ASEAN Natuna Solidarity Exercise 2023 on Lagong island, in Indonesia's Riau Islands province on September 23, 2023. (Photo by BAY ISMOYO / AFP)

As civilian unrest and political instability in Myanmar worsen, more questions arise about the effectiveness of the ASEAN-led peace initiative. 

In Myanmar, tension is at an all-time high due to the recent escalation of conflict between the anti-coup fighters and the Tatmadaw at Myawaddy Border Town. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers have expressed concern on the matter, but their position on the 5-Point Consensus as the fundamental guidelines for resolving the crisis remains the same.

The peace plan adopted in April 2021 has yet to see much progress. The Tatmadaw initially agreed to the terms and conditions, but their later actions proved otherwise. The road to democracy or even the pathway back to normalcy remains gloomy, while there is also a glimpse of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar being split up due to different resistance movements. 

ASEAN’s commitment to non-interference has made its so-called “driver seat” role dead on arrival. The core value of the principle is the actual barrier ASEAN faces in managing internal solidarity among members, let alone addressing external challenges together. The fact that ASEAN refused to take stronger measures further weakened its centrality role.

The international community needs ASEAN's leadership in a time of a jeopardized UNSC due to China and Russia’s opposition. It is time for more decisive and firm actions from the regional bloc. However, four rotating chairmanships later, its inaction clearly undermined ASEAN’s credibility as a regional organization. 

The divergence of interests among ASEAN members is also another obstacle to operationalizing the 5-Points Consensus. ASEAN is hesitant to take stronger measures against the military because of its own individual interests, preventing a unified response through actions such as sanctioning or even expelling Myanmar’s ASEAN membership for the moment. ASEAN members even provide a degree of legitimacy to the junta by allowing them to be the coordinator for ASEAN Dialogue partner Russia. 

ASEAN's so-called commitment to supporting Myanmar's “owned and led” political solution reflects the harsh nature of its unwillingness to commit abundant resources to the regional security issue, and, in our views, this is due to four main reasons.

First, ASEAN members are already preoccupied with their domestic interests. For instance, some key political events in ASEAN that occurred within the timeframe of Myanmar’s military staging the coup until now include protest demonstrations in Thailand, a controversial change of leadership in the Philippines, and a general election in Indonesia

Second, the rotating chair of ASEAN is unwilling to push for the Myanmar issue to be on top of the agendas to avoid being blasted by the international community if another fiasco happens. This was pretty much illustrated by the Indonesian “Quiet Diplomacy” style under its chairmanship. What’s more, Laos as chair of ASEAN this year, is also been comparatively silent since the appearance of Myanmar’s non-political representative in an ASEAN meeting.

Third, the bigger elephant in the room right now is the US-China rivalry in the region. The Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea occupies top priority countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Moreover, the Indonesians are also concerned about a potential arms race in the region due to the recent engagement of the US with its security alliances around the Indo-Pacific region, such as the newly established SQUAD, QUAD, and AUKUS. Hence, the Myanmar issue is only subordinate to their national security matter. 

Fourth, ASEAN member states, except Thailand, have a relatively weak involvement with the conflicting parties in Myanmar. And this is only because Thailand shares a border of over 2,400km with Myanmar. Inevitably, the humanitarian crisis, along with the flood of refugees into Thailand, will be severe if the situation in Myanmar continues to worsen.

However, dismissing ASEAN entirely is shortsighted. ASEAN is also in a tough spot, balancing trying to pressure the junta or risking pushing Myanmar closer to China or Russia.

Looking forward, to resolve the crisis, ASEAN should start by convening an international forum, such as the Paris Peace Agreement in Cambodia. By doing so, ASEAN could project its centrality role, push for a ceasefire in Myanmar, and pave the way for a general election in Naypyidaw. 

For now, ASEAN should rather be attentive to Myanmar's internal political dynamic despite its 5-Points Consensus. The situation on battlegrounds seems worse day by day. The 1027 Operation, started by the Three Brotherhood Alliance, had caused a stir in Burma’s domestic dynamic. 

The imposition of martial law across various regions, the imposition of the conscription law, and the recent extension of the state of emergency signal a shift in power dynamics in Myanmar. 

Some reports even claimed that many townships were becoming liberated or self-administered zones of which the resistance armed forces were now in control after just a few weeks of fighting against some of the Tatmadaw’s strongest choke points, such as in Kokang. 

In this case, ASEAN has to ensure that the Republic of the Union of Myanmar remains unified and avoids separatist movements. Building trust in ASEAN among Myanmar's civilians is the most crucial task of ASEAN now to safeguard its future credibility.


Moeung Cheery and Khan Menghok are research associates at the Cambodian Center for Regional Studies.  

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