ASEAN paralysis over Myanmar

The Myanmar issue has been holding back Asean's entire progress, including the group’s move to becoming a community and in addressing many pressing issues such as the economy.


November 15, 2022

JAKARTA – The ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh last weekend once again showed the group’s paralysis in dealing with Myanmar, one of its 10 members, which has been suppressing its people. After disinviting the Myanmar military from the summit, the nine leaders came out with a statement reaffirming their commitment to see through the implementation of the five-point consensus reached with the junta leader in Jakarta in April 2021.

Really? Twenty months and three summits later, ASEAN leaders should know that the junta never had the intention of abiding by the agreement, which includes an immediate end to violence and engaging dialogue with the opposition.

The Myanmar issue has been holding back ASEAN’s entire progress, including the group’s move to becoming a community and in addressing many pressing issues in the economy, public health and common security. Although Myanmar did not attend last weekend’s summit, it dominated discussions, including when world leaders met at the East Asia Summit, held back-to-back with the ASEAN summit.

Now that Indonesia is taking over the ASEAN chair, we should expect more from the group. We can forgive outgoing chair Cambodia and its predecessor Brunei in 2020, but as the largest member Indonesia has more clout and resources to make a difference in Myanmar.

We may recall that the five-point consensus was the result of Indonesia’s hard work and diplomatic skills in bringing all 10 ASEAN leaders, including junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to come to the emergency meeting and agree on a five-point consensus. The agreement raised hopes at the time that the brutality would soon end.

The world had pinned hopes on Myanmar’s closest neighbors in Southeast Asia to put pressure on the junta. But the continued defiance and the killing and jailing of its own people is creating a lot of frustration. Many are starting to question ASEAN’s effectiveness and credibility.

Now, with Indonesia at the helm, ASEAN needs to change its tact on Myanmar.

In the absence of any mechanism for expelling members, ASEAN should suspend Myanmar’s membership and bar the junta from taking part in all ASEAN meetings. This goes beyond the current sanction of only accepting non-political level representations at ASEAN summits and foreign ministers meetings. This would at least allow ASEAN to move on with other pressing issues without being saddled by the Myanmar issue.

ASEAN should give seats to representatives of Myanmar’s opposition government, either as observers or guests, at some of its meetings. ASEAN should use this additional leverage in negotiating with the junta for a new agreement to end the repression once and for all. The five-point consensus is clearly past its due date.

When it comes to Myanmar, ASEAN should stop using the pretext that all its decisions must be made through consensus, in which a single member can hold back the entire group, or hide behind the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member countries.

Extending on Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi’s statement that “doing nothing is not an option” when Indonesia called for the April 2021 emergency summit in Jakarta, today, doing little in Myanmar is also not an option.

Indonesia should use its leadership to save ASEAN and to save the Myanmar people. The next 12 months will prove whether we have what it takes.


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