The 40th and 41st ASEAN summits will take place in Cambodia from November 10-13 at a time when the organization is celebrating 55 years of its founding. It is also meeting at a time when the region is facing geopolitical uncertainties; economic slowdown due to various factors, chief among them the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic that devastated the region; and the ongoing turmoil in Myanmar that is affecting the standing of the organization and testing its unity.
As the political situation becomes critical in Myanmar with the junta brutally suppressing the resistance movement, going even to the extent of executing leading political activists—the first in Myanmar since the 1980s despite appeals for clemency from across the world, ASEAN faces a crisis of relevance.
Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing is flouting the very agreement—the Five-point consensus that he had agreed to in a special meeting of the organization in Jakarta in April 2021 to resolve the political crisis in the country. ASEAN, therefore, felt the urgent need to put Myanmar as an important agenda in the summit. But going by the way ASEAN operates, taking decisions on the basis of consensus, no substantive actions in regard to the implementation of the Five-point consensus could be taken in the face of resistance from the junta. At best, it would be window-dressing of its earlier efforts.
In February 2021, the military junta led a coup against Aung San Suu Kyi, and since then, the junta has been condemned for its actions by many global powers, as other ASEAN members have called for peace.
How to strengthen the implementation of the Five-point consensus became a major concern for the bloc. The five steps the regime agreed to with the ASEAN leaders are: immediate end to violence; dialogue among all concerned parties; appointment of a special envoy; provision of humanitarian assistance by ASEAN; and a visit by the bloc’s special envoy to Myanmar to meet all parties.
Even after more than a year and a half, the Myanmar junta has not done anything to end the violence, nor has it allowed the special envoy to meet Aung San Suu Kyi who has been imprisoned on trumped up charges. Cambodian Foreign Minister and ASEAN envoy for Myanmar, Prak Sokhonn has visited Myanmar twice but both times the military has denied him a meeting with Suu Kyi. Now ASEAN feels that time has come when it must double up its efforts to establish its credibility and initiate some action in order to ensure full and effective implementation of the Five-point consensus and an early conclusion to the Myanmar crisis. The meeting of the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN on October 27 discussed key recommendations to be submitted for consideration at the ASEAN summit.
In July the junta stoked renewed international condemnation when it executed Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former lawmaker from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party and Kyaw Min Yu, a prominent democracy activist better known as ‘Ko Jimmy’ after a closed-door trial for offences under anti-terrorism laws. In response, the UN Security Council, including junta allies Russia and China, issued a rare condemnation of the junta. More than 100 people have been sentenced to death—70 of them are in jail in Myanmar; the rest sentenced in absentia. As of September this year, more than 2,200 people have been killed and more than 15,000 arrested in the military’s crackdown on dissent since it seized power in February 2021, according to a local rights group.
As ASEAN chair, Cambodia issued a statement saying it was “extremely troubled and deeply saddened” by the killings, and criticised the timing, close to the ASEAN meeting, as “reprehensible”. But it did not condemn the executions.
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has been among the most outspoken on Myanmar. He described the executions as a “crime against humanity” that showed the “junta was making a mockery of the Five Point Consensus”. Malaysia has suggested State Administration Council (SAC)—the official name for the junta, be banned from all ASEAN events rather than just the top summits, while Saifuddin has suggested the group act as a “facilitator” to bring all sides together. The ASEAN special envoy, he said, should meet representatives of the National Unity Government (NUG) set up by the resistance movement. “I am of the opinion that ASEAN needs to have a framework that has an end game and lays out the matters/processes required to achieve that end game,” he said in a statement on July 31. “The end game is a democratic, inclusive and just, peaceful and harmonious, prosperous Myanmar, who’s civil and political rights are guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines took a somewhat similar position on the Myanmar executions. The remaining members were not willing to take a tough position, as was revealed from a statement by the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which exposed some of the differences. It noted that a “consensus could not be reached”. So, the statement to “strongly condemn” the activists’ executions was being made only by the representatives of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
Laos and Cambodia are closer to China, which has emerged as a major patron of the junta for its own strategic and economic interests, and therefore, cannot be expected to take a strong position on Myanmar. Vietnam adopts a middle path and is not in favour of a strong position on the internal affairs of another member country. So even while ASEAN’s chair Cambodia reinforced on October 27 the foreign ministers’ commitment to the five-point consensus and that the bloc should be “even more determined” to bring about a peaceful solution, not much can be expected from the summit towards the resolution of the Myanmar conflict. If anything, the change will only be cosmetic.
In the meantime, the junta has come out with its own Five-point programme to consolidate its position. This is as follows:
The Union Election Commission will be reconstituted and its mandated tasks, including the scrutiny of voter lists, shall be implemented in accordance with the law.
Effective measures will be taken with added momentum to prevent and manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
Actions will be taken to ensure the speedy recovery of businesses from the impact of COVID-19.
Emphasis will be placed on achieving enduring peace for the entire nation in line with the agreements set out in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
Upon accomplishing the provisions of the state of emergency, free and fair multi-party democratic elections will be held in line with the 2008 Constitution, and further work will be undertaken to hand over State duties to the winning party in accordance with democratic standard.
So, the junta’s objectives are quite clear: reconstitute the Election Commission by filling it with its loyalists, disqualify both Aung San Suu Kyi and her party NLD, hold a guided election to ensure the victory of the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) as per the 2008 Constitution that guarantees the role of the military in the politics of the country and reverses whatever progress the country made in its democratization process.