“President U Win Myint’s Debut at the ASEAN Summit” by Moe Thuzar

2018/44, 25 April 2018

The 32nd ASEAN Summit, the first of two Summits to be chaired and hosted by Singapore during its ASEAN chairmanship in 2018, will see the debut of Myanmar’s newly elected President U Win Myint on the ASEAN scene. His participation will be watched with interest by ASEAN insiders and watchers alike, especially on what he will (or will not) say about the Rakhine/Rohingya issue.

The news of Mr Win Myint’s attendance at the ASEAN Summit broke amidst widespread anticipation of how Myanmar’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would tackle the issue of repatriating and resettling displaced Rohingya (currently numbering 700,000 according to latest UN estimates) from camps in Bangladesh back to Rakhine State.  Myanmar widely publicised the return of the first Rohingya family (since the exodus in August 2017) on 16 April 2018. But there have as yet been no subsequent returnees, and concerns continue over safe and voluntary return as well as resettlement issues.

The Rakhine/Rohingya issue became part of ASEAN’s discussion agenda under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, when Daw Suu convened a special meeting of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Yangon in November 2016. This was interpreted as a sign that Myanmar viewed ASEAN as the venue in which Myanmar could discuss and negotiate difficult domestic issues that affected regional stability and ASEAN centrality. ASEAN’s quiet diplomacy approach also seemed to be one of the few channels making any headway in and with Myanmar. ASEAN meetings – among foreign ministers and at Summit level – provided the opportunity for Myanmar to brief other ASEAN leaders on the situation and discuss the wider security and humanitarian implications of the issue.  Such briefings are not new, and have long been practiced by Myanmar, particularly from the period between 2001 to 2015, in the context of encouraging dialogue towards democratic rule, and the release of political prisoners, especially Daw Suu at the time.

President Win Myint’s attendance at the 32nd ASEAN Summit signals two points worth monitoring. First, Daw Suu’s delegation of key office-holder duties seems to have started in earnest, and may well signal a precursor to the succession-planning hinted at with Mr Win Myint’s appointment to executive office within the government as well as the higher echelons of the NLD. Second, Daw Suu now seems to prefer to focus more attention on domestic priorities, of which there are many, with the Rohingya issue affecting domestic and foreign policy actions.
For now, Mr Win Myint’s ASEAN performance will be keenly watched, and benchmarked (for better or worse) against Daw Suu’s.  The test of that performance will be focused on how the government is addressing the Rohingya crisis, and its engagement with ASEAN in the process. ASEAN has provided a constructive platform for the time and space that Daw Suu sought for Myanmar to deal with this deep-rooted and protracted issue. ASEAN’s offer of assistance to one of its own members also stems from a desire to manage the crisis within ASEAN’s ambit.

The sight of the ASEAN leaders sitting together and discussing regional issues reminds vividly that regional decision-making takes place in a setting where national interests and regional commitments may often clash. Reaching a compromise agreement on sensitive issues can be incredibly difficult.  But ASEAN’s collective negotiating space can help to mitigate harsh individual statements and responses.  This has been brought to bear the most in ASEAN’s dealings with Myanmar, which Mr Win Myint will experience for himself at this summit.

Ms Moe Thuzar is Lead Researcher (Socio-Cultural) at ASEAN Studies Centre and Co-Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

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