January 9, 2023
JAKARTA – Patience has its limits, even for ASEAN, famous or notorious, some argue, for its tardiness in taking action. The regional group must do something drastic soon in its dealing with Myanmar, the belligerent member which has defied its promise to end violence in the country. Failing that, the Myanmar issue is dragging the entire group down.
As this year’s ASEAN rotating chair, Indonesia says it will press the Myanmar junta to abide by the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) that it signed in an emergency meeting held in Jakarta in April 2021, two months after the military grabbed power from the democratically elected civilian government.
More than 20 months later, the military government has not abided by any of the five points that should be obvious to everyone that, by now, the generals in charge in Naypyidaw have no intention of implementing the agreement. They probably never have in the first place and they fooled all the other ASEAN leaders present at that crucial meeting.
No one ever doubted that the 5PC was a good document, a hard-won diplomacy by host President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. The five points are an immediate end to violence, holding dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special envoy, allowing humanitarian assistance by ASEAN and allowing an ASEAN special envoy visit Myanmar to meet with all parties.
It was the best agreement that both sides could have gotten and it momentarily gave hope to the people in Myanmar and to the world that the situation would soon improve. It would have given a respectable exit for the junta and some credibility to ASEAN for its ability to sort out its own problems.
This however turned out to be an illusion. Today, the consensus looks like a dead document. ASEAN or rather Indonesia as chair should come up with an alternative plan in its place.
Realistically, there is not much more that ASEAN can do with Myanmar, not only because it is being held back by the “non-interference” principle, but more because the military junta has refused intervention from anyone, even from its well-meaning neighbors in Southeast Asia as it continues to kill and persecute its own people that oppose its rule.
The Myanmar Plan B should not be about more dialogues or meetings with the junta. That ship has sailed. ASEAN should be prepared to drop any pretensions that it has the capacity to resolve the Myanmar problem and now simply return the issue to the United Nations to deal with.
ASEAN should be prepared to suspend Myanmar’s membership if the mechanism for expelling members is not provided for in the association’s bylaws. For much of the past year, ASEAN policy has been to exclude Myanmar’s political representations from all ASEAN meetings, including for example, the summits and the foreign ministers’ meetings. Not much good did it do if the intention was to pressure the Myanmar junta.
We are now reaching the point where Myanmar’s membership has become a liability to ASEAN. The failure to pressure the junta to end its violence, through no fault of its own, is hurting the group’s overall credibility.
Membership suspension would remove the Myanmar issue from the ASEAN agenda and allow the group to turn its time and energy on many other issues that are just as important but had not been given much attention while it focused on Myanmar for nearly two years.
Let’s call a spade a spade. ASEAN does not need the Myanmar problem, which is dragging down everybody else in the region. It is not abandoning the Myanmar people, but after nearly two years clearly restoring peace in the country is simply too big a job for ASEAN. Myanmar will be welcome to join the group once peace is restored and a credible government is put in place.
Without the Myanmar issue, ASEAN’s agenda is already full as it is for chair Indonesia to manage this year, from the incoming global recession, restoring some semblance of normalcy in the post-COVID-19 pandemic and the ASEAN community building project, to the tensions in the South China Sea, the impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war, the growing United States-China rivalry and promoting the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
And there is the planned accession of Timor Leste as ASEAN’s 11th member this year. About time too. Why should the young nation, which has consistently out-ranked other Southeast Asian countries in world democracy indices, be kept waiting while a brutal regime is allowed to keep its membership.
The onus is on chair Indonesia to decide the fate of Myanmar’s participation in ASEAN. We should give the junta until April before making the drastic decision to either fully suspend or expel Myanmar. A two-year period to implement the 5PC seems generous. That should be the limit of ASEAN’s patience.
The writer is senior editor at The Jakarta Post.