ASEAN sticks to failed peace plan despite ongoing bloodshed in Myanmar

Southeast Asian foreign ministers decided Thursday to persist with a failed peace plan on Myanmar, a move that a top human rights group called “a huge disappointment,” days after the bloodiest single airstrike in the country since last year’s military coup.

The ministers emphasized the need to ensure the time-bound implementation of a five-point consensus agreed to with the Burmese junta in April 2021, ASEAN chair Cambodia said after a special meeting in Jakarta of top diplomats from the regional bloc’s member-states.

The ministers “reaffirmed the importance and relevance” of the consensus, “and underscored the need to further strengthen its implementation through concrete, practical and time-bound actions,” Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said in a statement after the meeting.

The consensus calls for an immediate end to violence; a dialogue among all concerned parties; mediation of the dialogue process by an ASEAN special envoy; provision of humanitarian aid through ASEAN channels; and a visit to Myanmar by the bloc’s special envoy to meet all concerned parties.

Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s top diplomat, acknowledged that the foreign ministers from member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were disappointed with the lack of significant progress in implementing the five-point consensus, with some expressing their frustration.

“Instead of progressing, the situation was even described as worsening,” Retno said.

“The approach of sweeping problems under the rug should no longer be an option.”

But, as chair Cambodia’s statement said, the foreign ministers, “agreed that ASEAN should not be discouraged, but even more determined to help Myanmar to bring about a peaceful solution the soonest possible.”

Myanmar’s expulsion from ASEAN was never on the table, according to Sidharto Suryodipuro, director general of ASEAN cooperation at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Discussions on the situation in Myanmar have always been based on the assumption that Myanmar remains part of ASEAN,” Sidharto told reporters.

The special meeting in Jakarta was held to prepare recommendations to be submitted to ASEAN leaders at the summit of the 10-nation bloc in Cambodia next month.

Discontent has been growing among some ASEAN members about the junta reneging on the consensus it had agreed to, and amid the relentless violence, especially the execution of four political prisoners in July.

The violence has only increased since.

At least 63 people were killed after Myanmar military jets Sunday dropped munitions on a crowd attending a concert celebrating the 62nd anniversary of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)’s founding. It was believed to be the deadliest single airstrike since the military seized power in a February 2021 coup.

Saifuddin Abdullah, Malaysia’s outspoken top diplomat, in July had raised the prospect of junking the five-point consensus. Last month in New York, he had questioned its validity, because the junta had been blithely ignoring it.

But Saifuddin, who has consistently taken the lead on post-coup Myanmar issues at ASEAN, was absent from the special meeting in Jakarta, because his government is now a caretaker administration after the announcement of a general election next month in Malaysia.  

Seven ASEAN foreign ministers attended the talks in Jakarta in person.

As in several previous meetings, Myanmar was not represented, Prak said.

Vietnam’s foreign minister was busy preparing for a visit by the head of the Vietnamese communist party to China next week, according to an ASEAN diplomatic source.

‘Junta has shown its contempt for ASEAN’

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, minced no words in expressing his dismay about the outcome of Thursday’s meeting in Jakarta.

“ASEAN has reached a make or break point on Myanmar, but the Special Foreign Ministers meeting statement reflected just more business as usual, and that’s a huge disappointment. It’s hard to see how the Five Point Consensus can be saved when the SAC military junta has failed to implement one word of what Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing promised in Jakarta last year,” he said in a statement, referring to the Burmese military chief.

“Instead of the kind of wishy-washy language contained in the [ASEAN] chairperson’s statement today, ASEAN needs to get tough by establishing clear, time bound human rights benchmarks on Myanmar that include the release of political prisoners, a cessation of attacks on civilians, and steps towards dissolving the junta to allow for the establishment of civilian democratic rule,” Robertson added.

“Those benchmarks should be accompanied by clear penalties should Myanmar fail to meet them,” he added.

ASEAN will have to do more than repeat calls for an end to violence and the need for dialogue and negotiation, said Hunter S. Marston, a researcher on Asia at the Australian National University.

“Those conditions are unrealistic at this point, and the junta has shown its contempt for ASEAN and its diplomatic efforts,” he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

ASEAN will never expel Myanmar, but it should include representatives from the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) to promote dialogue, he said.

For its part, the NUG said the benefit of ASEAN holding on to the five-point consensus was questionable.

“ASEAN leaders know all too well what Myanmar people want and need. We have just heard Ms. Noeleen Heyzer, the United Nations envoy to Myanmar, say the other day that Myanmar’s people can never accept the military junta,” Kyaw Zaw, spokesman for the NUG’s president office told the Burmese Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), an online news service affiliated with BenarNews.

“If ASEAN believes the same, I think they should have direct dialogue with the NUG, the real government that represents the wish of Myanmar people and the national ethnic groups to put an end to all these crises,” Kyaw Zaw added.

Based on the outcome of Thursday’s meeting and because ASEAN makes its decisions consensually, one Burmese analyst, Sai Kyi Zin Soe, did not foresee much progress being made at the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh next month.

“ASEAN member countries seem to be split into two: the West-leaning and the pro-China, and they are not sure of their stand between the two either. Some member countries favor the idea that the NUG should be invited as the West suggested whereas the others still hold the belief that the Myanmar military junta can be further reasoned with for progress,” Sai Kyi Zin Soe told RFA.

“Because of these different views among ASEAN countries, the summit, in my opinion, might not be able to make a common decision that Myanmar people desire, or a common decision that leads to effective changes for Myanmar people.”

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