The ASEAN Studies Centre organized this online roundtable to discuss how ASEAN can operationalise the ‘‘Five-Point Consensus’’ from the 24 April 2021 ASEAN Leaders Meeting in response to the political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
ASEAN STUDIES CENTRE WEBINAR
Friday, 14 May 2021 – The ASEAN Studies Centre (ASC) at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a roundtable discussion on “ASEAN’s Mission in Myanmar: What Next?”. At the roundtable, a panel of seasoned ASEAN diplomats and analysts shared their perspectives on how ASEAN can play a constructive role in the ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, especially the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus reached at the ASEAN leaders’ meeting on 24 April 2021. In his welcome remarks, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, Head of the ASC and Director & CEO of ISEAS, highlighted the urgency for ASEAN to operationalise the consensus plan, rally the support of external partners, and promote dialogue among different stakeholders in Myanmar to de-escalate tensions and restore stability.
Brunei Darussalam’s Foreign Minister II The Honourable Dato Erywan Pehin Yusof delivered the Opening Remarks. He reiterated ASEAN’s commitment to address the Myanmar issue in the spirit of the ASEAN family, as reflected in the leaders’ willingness to meet in person in Jakarta. He encouraged pragmatic and innovative recommendations from experts on how ASEAN could move forward with the consensus plan. These include the suggestion of establishing a “Friends of the Chair” grouping to support the ASEAN Special Envoy, nominations of high-calibre individuals to be appointed as the envoy, and cooperation with ASEAN dialogue partners to garner additional support and humanitarian assistance. Dato Erywan also noted that the primary task of the envoy and his delegation is to facilitate constructive dialogue between all parties concerned in Myanmar and persuade them to stop violence. These efforts and potential suggestions, he stressed, must be aligned with the principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter.
The panel discussion comprised Ms Moe Thuzar, ISEAS Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Executive Director, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at NTU, Ambassador Dr Rizal Sukma, Senior Research Fellow of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia, and Ambassador Sihasak Phuangketkeow, former Permanent Secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The webinar was moderated by Ms Sharon Seah, Senior Fellow and ASC Coordinator.
Ms Thuzar provided an overview of the latest developments of Myanmar’s political turmoil, including the mounting number of deaths and detainees, escalated involvement of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Union in the fight against the State of Administration Council (SAC), and non-violent protests of various forms across townships, including young undergraduates boycotting SAC orders to attend classes in universities. She also mentioned that the military regime has since implemented retaliatory measures such as categorising representatives from the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG) and the People’s Defense Force as terrorists, laying off civil servants who participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement, and using state-owned media to persuade the public to abstain from protests. Although the NUG welcomed the Five-Point Consensus, Ms Thuzar observed that most of the democracy movement supporters have little confidence that ASEAN could respond to the crisis effectively. In light of this, Ms Thuzar’s recommendations for ASEAN’s consideration include, among others, conducting shuttle consultations with different stakeholders in Myanmar before any constructive dialogue can be organised, engaging with the NUG and EAOs, and exploring innovative ways to deliver humanitarian assistance.
Ambassador Ong Keng Yong underscored the coup-engendered economic and social costs to all stakeholders in Myanmar, including Tatmadaw soldiers. Noting Myanmar’s plummeting economic growth forecast to -10% and the withdrawal of Official Development Assistance by countries such as Japan, Ambassador Ong cautioned that the military authorities may not have the capacity to shoulder the massive financial loss. He believed that more emphasis on the coup’s consequences would help the adversarial parties, be it the Tatmadaw or the civilian democrats, to look beyond their narrow self-interests and incentivise them to embrace ASEAN’s initiative. Lastly, Ambassador Ong noted that ASEAN needs to consider the impossible in the event the Tatmadaw fails to cooperate in implementing the Five-Point Consensus. He suggested that the first step was to appoint a delegation to Myanmar to explore ways in which ASEAN could render assistance to the country and its people.
Ambassador Dr Rizal Sukma advised ASEAN to respect the will of the Myanmar people, in line with ASEAN’s principle that the organisation shall not condone unconstitutional takeover of government in any member state. Dr Sukma highlighted the urgency for the ASEAN Chair to immediately appoint the special envoy and the delegation to implement the Five-Point Consensus. He opined that the special envoy should enjoy the support of all ASEAN member states and the stakeholders in Myanmar to gain legitimacy. He also suggested that ASEAN should set up a monitoring and compliance mechanism with the stakeholders, undertake needs assessment for humanitarian assistance in consultation with local groups, especially on the modes of aid delivery, and conduct meetings with all parties to gauge the feasibility of conducting inclusive dialogues. Nonetheless, Dr Sukma acknowledged the possibility that the SAC might decide to reject all ASEAN efforts. Some ASEAN member states, including Indonesia, would be forced to resort to measures beyond the ASEAN framework such as opposing SAC participation in ASEAN meetings and suspension of membership.
Ambassador Sihasak Phuangketkeow spoke of the importance for ASEAN to develop a coherent, coordinated and creative diplomatic strategy in managing Myanmar’s political unrest. He opined that the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus needs to be supplemented by continued individual engagement from all ASEAN member states through their own bilateral channels with Myanmar as well as support from other key players such as China, Japan, India, the US and Australia. With respect to the modality of the envoy, Ambassador Phuangketkeow posited the idea of having a group of special envoys or a group of Friends of the Chair. This is because he perceived the prospect of having an envoy that satisfied the requirements of all parties concerned to be extremely low. He also suggested that ASEAN should prioritise humanitarian assistance delivery and that humanitarian efforts must be free from politicisation. Ambassador Phuangketkeow raised concerns over the military regime’s potential rejection of the consensus plan. He believes that the ASEAN Charter provides for certain action to be taken to ensure compliance, and it is ASEAN’s onus to seriously consider such action with regard to non-compliant behaviour.
The Q&A session discussed the specific indicators that could trigger punitive measures from ASEAN in case the military authorities refused to cooperate in the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus, the option of denying SAC international recognition, the factors hindering ASEAN from acknowledging NUG’s legitimacy, the role of relevant major powers, and the envoy modality. There was general agreement among the speakers that the special envoy should be appointed immediately and his delegation should pay a visit to Myanmar as soon as possible. It was also noted that this deployment required a clear work plan with a proper monitoring mechanism. The discussion also shed light on the importance for ASEAN to consider the scenario of suspension or termination of membership if the consensus plan fails to follow through.
The webinar was attended by over 330 participants.