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How the ASEAN Summit on Myanmar Might—or Might Not—Impact the Situation in Myanmar

Myanmar's political crisis has pushed ASEAN leaders to hold a summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 24 April 2021. Could the ASEAN Summit help the situation on Myanmar?

By Joshua Kurlantzick

These past weekends, the ten member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including Myanmar, held an emergency summit to address the ongoing crisis in Myanmar since the February 1 coup by the military. Since then, the death toll has risen above seven hundred, thousands of people have been arrested, and the country has disintegrated in civil conflict, with the armed forces regularly attacking civilians across Myanmar.

The emergency summit produced five key points released by ASEAN. One, that the parties involved in Myanmar should immediately cease violence. Two, that the parties in Myanmar should seek a peaceful solution to the crisis via “constructive dialogue.” Three, that the ASEAN Chair will appoint a special envoy to mediate in the Myanmar crisis, and that envoy also will be assisted by the ASEAN Secretary-General. Fourth, that ASEAN will provide humanitarian assistance to the country. Finally, that the special envoy and a delegation shall travel to Myanmar to meet with all parties in the crisis.

Although the results of the emergency summit are more interventionist than ASEAN usually is regarding member-states’ politics, the summit and its declaration still have huge flaws. As Frontier Myanmar noted, “the regional bloc ultimately reached a five-point consensus that Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said [junta leader] Min Aung Hlaing ‘considered helpful’, which sounds ominous.”

It is true that an envoy, particularly one with significant clout, could potentially have some impact on the ground in Myanmar, and try to bring forth a cessation of violence, which certainly would be positive. But the five-point statement fails to address multiple issues. First, while a special envoy and a commitment to humanitarian assistance could pave the way for greater aid, it was already possible to provide humanitarian aid, as Myanmar specialist Kim Jolliffe has noted—the problem has been the challenges thrown up by the military and the chaos.

Second, the statement does not call for the release of the many political prisoners who have been taken, which should be a precursor for steps toward resolution of the crisis, and it also, by invoking “all parties,” makes it sound like both the opposition and the military are responsible for the violence, when in reality the military is the aggressor and was the one that launched a coup. Frontier Myanmar has reported that the statement was supposed to include a call for releasing political prisoners, but that part of the document was scrapped before the statement was formalized. (And, the military reportedly continues to attack and arrest civilians, as recently as yesterday Myanmar time, so it hardly seems they are committed to stopping the violence.) Third, how does ASEAN intend to include the parallel government in talks in a way that treats both sides as equals, when the focus has primarily been on placating the junta—or to come up with some “compromise,” when the majority of the Myanmar public just wants the junta gone, and the junta violated a prior kind of civilian-military power-sharing deal? The parallel government demands a return to a democratically elected government.

Finally, by allowing for what will inevitably be a fairly slow process of attempted mediation, with no clear timetable and no clear enforcement measures in place in the junta basically ignores or stalls the process, the summit statement gives more time for the situation in Myanmar to continue on. And, time often favors the aggressor, which in this case is the Myanmar military.

Parts of this blog post were adapted from a series of tweets I did over the weekend on the ASEAN Summit.

Editor’s Note: This article was previously published in Council on Foreign Relations on 26 April 2021, and is published here with the permission of the author. The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of PinterPolitik.

Joshua Kurlantzick

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