An Analysis of ASEAN’s Special Envoy Visit to Myanmar
Cchavi Vasisht, Research Associate, VIF

As Cambodia takes over as the Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2022, the visit of Cambodia’s Foreign Minister, Prak Sokhonn as ASEAN’s Special Envoy to Myanmar marks an important development in the current crisis-ridden country. For the first time, the Myanmar military hosted ASEAN delegates since it took power in February 2021. The previous visit scheduled for October 2021 by Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister, Erywan Yusof, was cancelled as the Myanmar military denied the envoy’s meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. The article below explores the developments made by the regional organisation and the opportunities missed in the process. ASEAN’s role as the regional force has been limited and criticised by opposition forces, civil society groups and international groups.

ASEAN’s Position since Military Takeover in 2021

ASEAN was formed in 1967 in Bangkok, with Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia as the founding members. Myanmar was a late entrant, joining the regional organisation in 1997. Under the ASEAN Charter, the countries made political, economic and socio-cultural commitments. However, the members have failed to arrive at a consensus on many occasions in the past, for instance, for the South China Sea or the recent Myanmar crises. The visit of Cambodia's Foreign Minister, Prak Sokhonn to Myanmar serves as an example.

ASEAN has been attempting to act as a peacemaker since the military took over power in February 2021 and overthrew the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. In April 2021, ASEAN leaders agreed to implement the Five-Point Consensus, which was concluded at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta meeting between ASEAN leaders and Myanmar military leader, Min Aung Hlaing. [1]
The consensus included-

  • There must be an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties must exercise the utmost restraint.
  • A constructive dialogue between all the parties concerned must begin to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people.
  • A Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair will facilitate the mediation of the dialogue process with the assistance of the ASEAN Secretary-General.
  • ASEAN will provide humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA).
  • The Special Envoy and the delegation will travel to Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.

In 2021, the non-implementation of the consensus led to mixed responses from the side of ASEAN members. The violence and conflict continued, and no dialogue was initiated from the side of the military. The denial to ASEAN Special Envoy meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi derailed the implementation of the consensus two points on the Special Envoy’s role as mediation and visited Myanmar as well. During the adoption of the United Nations (UN) resolution in July 2021, on the call of imposing an arms embargo onto Myanmar, ASEAN countries failed to put forward a united stand. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam supported the resolution. Myanmar’s representative, Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun, who is a civilian government representative, also supported the resolution. However, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand abstained from the resolution. [2]

In 2022, as Cambodia took over as ASEAN chair, new hopes were raised on ASEAN’s role as an effective regional organisation. First, in December 2021, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen met the Myanmar military’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Wunna Maung Lwin. Then, in January 2022, he visited Myanmar and urged Myanmar's military ruler to allow a visit by a Special Envoy of the ASEAN. [3] This formed the basis for a three-day visit of the Special Envoy, Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, 21-23 March 2022.

The Outcome of the Visit

Prak Sokhonn was accompanied by ASEAN‘s Secretary-General, Lim Jock Hoi, Cambodian Minister of Industry, Cham Prasidh, Executive Director of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (the AHA Centre) Lee Yam Ming, Secretary of State, Kung Phoak, and other delegates. Prior to the visit, the agenda of the meeting was not made public, but the Cambodian government stated that the visit aimed to create a favourable condition that would lead to the end of the violence and implementation of the Five Point consensus. Prak Sokhonn also stated the need to meet with Myanmar’s NUG despite the military considering it a terrorist organisation. He suggested that he could act as a bridge between the military and the National Unity Government (NUG), with a caution to avoid friction between the ASEAN envoy and Myanmar’s military.

On 21st March, Prak Sokhonn met the military’s leader Min Aung Liang. Later, Prak Sokhonn met military’s Foreign Minister, Wunna Maung Lwin. He also met International Cooperation Minister, Ko Ko Hlaing and People’s Party Chairman, Ko Ko Gyi. The military-owned MTRV reported on the visit and stated that Min Aung Hlaing had informed the Envoy that Myanmar’s military council was cooperating on the ASEAN agreement and trying to restore peace and order. However, Min Hlaing blamed the opposition forces and their lawlessness for continuing violence. It was also reported that Wunna Maung Lwin explained to Prak Sokhonn that the peace process must be “Myanmar-owned and Myanmar-led”.

However, the visit failed to provide an effective resolution to the current crisis. The military again denied meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, which effectively derails the implementation of the five-point consensus. [4] However, according to Cambodian officials, the military permitted them to meet with other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. But such permission was of no use, as most of the leaders of the NLD are jailed or hiding to escape the arrest. The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) criticised Sokhonn for not setting any favourable conditions or demands on the Myanmar military as done by the earlier Envoy.

The General Strike Coordination Body, a group of 36 civil society groups, released a statement that complained that recommendations by ASEAN members had been ignored by the Envoy who was advocating for Myanmar’s military government. They described ASEAN’s stand as ‘shameful’ as the visit failed to call upon the military to end the atrocities immediately and did not meet any NLD or NUG party members. They collectively issued a statement that they objected to the visit of Prak Sokhonn.[5] Few protests were reported in Kachin and Mandalay, with posters reading, "We don’t need you Prak Sokhonn, you are not welcome in Myanmar" and "ASEAN stands for democracy, not for dictatorship”.[6] Such statements depict the strong reactions against the ASEAN initiatives and lack of efforts to address the citizens’ voices and demands.

The Missed Opportunities

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, criticised the international response as “ineffectual”, which lacks a sense of urgency. She stated that “accountability of the military remains crucial to any solution going forward — the people overwhelmingly demand this.” However, there has been mixed international response to the current crisis.[7] While on the one hand, the western nations have imposed sanctions on the military members as well as companies the neighbouring countries, such as India, Japan, and ASEAN members, have given mixed responses. China and Russia, UNSC members, have vetoed any resolution against the military rule in Myanmar.

The two most debated solutions for the current crises are an arms embargo and targeted sanctions to prevent the military from raising weapons and money; in short, to defund and disarm the military. At the same time, a UN resolution was initiated in 2021, as was discussed earlier. The effectiveness of targeted sanctions on the economy and people is widely questioned.[8] These sanctions would restrict the military’s access to funds but consequently hurt the economy and people.

Based on this, it can be concluded that the resolution to the current crisis lies in ensuring a collective response, making the military accountable for its actions, disarming the military and ensuring effective dialogue with all stakeholders. Unfortunately, ASEAN has failed to work on any of these.

ASEAN has failed to give a collective response to the crisis. As enumerated in the ASEAN Charter, the organisation must ensure collective responsibility towards peace and security, which is not reflected in the individual countries’ responses. On the one hand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have consistently condemned the coup and have ensured that Min Aung Hlaing is kept out of the ASEAN’s summit in October 2021. Indonesia and Singapore also issued strongly worded statements on the first anniversary of the coup. Indonesia stated that it “deplores” the military’s actions and expressed concern that “conditions in Myanmar for the people continue to deteriorate”.

While on the other hand, Thailand has been criticised for its relatively soft stance post-coup. There have been voices within Thailand against its ineffective role in condemning the coup and continued selling arms to the Myanmar military. As a result of the coup and continued violence, Thailand has received over 3000 refugees, who were earlier based in the temporary encampments. However, with the military announcement of the takeover of the Lay Kay Kay area, the Thailand government has stated that the refugees would be able to return to their country. However, there are concerns about the forced return to the conflict-ridden state. [9]

ASEAN member states must unite to ensure the military is held accountable for the current humanitarian crises and continued violence. In this context, ASEAN countries should negotiate with China and Russia to re-work their strategy. Some change in approach is visible among Chinese negotiators as they held talks with NUG members as its projects were disrupted and factories were put on fire. In the current times, even Russia’s position and supremacy are under question, especially after the invasion of Ukraine. Further, Fortify Rights has called upon the ASEAN member states to adhere to the arms embargo and ban the export of arms and technology to Myanmar’s military.

While isolating the country by imposing sanctions is not the solution, efforts must be made to restrict the military’s access to funds. The country is in desperate need of funds to address the humanitarian crises created by the military and the impact of COVID-19. Unfortunately, under the 2021 UN Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan, only 46 percent of requested funds have been received.

Finally, the resolution of the crises lies in addressing the historical disparities and mistrust. The varied forces in the country claim their power and right to rule themselves. The rise of NUG and the Ethnic Armed Organisations following the crisis clearly depicts that neither the people will settle for a military rule nor have they fully reconciled with the rule by the NLD or NUG. Therefore, it is pertinent that all stakeholders be participants in the dialogue and are apportioned their rightful share of power and authority. The military has usurped power in past decades and the Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD party had made little progress in addressing the ethnic issues; the current crisis will be solved only when all stakeholders are given their rightful position and authority.

Conclusion

The ASEAN Charter, which came in force in 2008, obligates ASEAN members to politically commit to “principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance”, “respect, protection and promotion of human rights”, and “peace-oriented values”. It is pertinent to ensure collective responsibility, and under such commitments, it is essential that ASEAN as a regional organisation acts on its words and not just make statements or raise concerns. It is time to address the Myanmar military actions and make them accountable. A peaceful resolution to the current crisis has a historical basis, and therefore only an all-inclusive dialogue with equal representation of all stakeholders is the need of the hour.

Endnotes

[1]https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/Chairmans-Statement-on-ALM-Five-Point-Consensus-24-April-2021-FINAL-a-1.pdf
[2] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/06/un-new-resolution-against-violence-in-myanmar-must-prompt-global-arms-embargo/
[3]https://www.dw.com/en/cambodian-pms-visit-to-myanmar-sparks-protests/a-60358591
[4]https://www.euronews.com/2022/03/22/us-cambodia-asean-myanmar
[5]https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/36-civil-society-groups-protest-against-asean-special-envoys-visit-myanmar
[6] https://www.ucanews.com/news/asean-envoys-maiden-visit-to-myanmar-met-with-protests/96603
[7]https://www.vifindia.org/article/2022/february/08/2021-a-year-of-military-rule-predictions-and-way-forward-for-2022
[8]https://www.vifindia.org/article/2021/may/22/sanctions-an-ineffective-tool-in-myanmar
[9]https://karennews.org/2022/01/burma-army-planning-large-scale-offensive-against-combined-karen-forces-displaced-people-fear-forced-return-from-thailand/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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