A special webinar was organised by the ASEAN Studies Centre to discuss updates on ASEAN’s efforts in Myanmar. The discussion included the stalled implementation of the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus, especially in engaging with Myanmar’s stakeholders and the distribution of emergency aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management.
ASEAN STUDIES CENTRE WEBINAR
On 21 July 2022, the ASEAN Studies Centre (ASC) at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a webinar titled: “Special Discussion: An Update on ASEAN’s Efforts in Myanmar”. In this webinar, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cambodia provided an update on his second official visit to Myanmar as the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair and shared his insights on the way forward for ASEAN. Following the keynote speech, a panel of regional thought leaders discussed lessons learnt in past engagements with Myanmar and how to ensure greater continuity when the baton is passed to the next ASEAN Special Envoy. To start the discussion, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, Head of ASC and Director & CEO of ISEAS, shared his opening remarks where he highlighted Cambodia’s crucial role in engaging critical stakeholders in Myanmar and achieving consensus on ASEAN’s response to the humanitarian crisis on the ground. He underscored the importance of the webinar in taking stock of ASEAN’s efforts in Myanmar and to identify ways to overcome various challenges in implementing the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Kingdom of Cambodia and Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar H.E. Prak Sokhonn delivered the Keynote Speech. He highlighted his top three priorities in the implementation of the Five Point Consensus, namely: (1) cessation or reduction of violence; (2) delivery of humanitarian assistance to the people in need in a non-discriminatory manner; and (3) creation of a conducive environment for inclusive dialogue and political trust among all parties concerned. He then shared the progress made on these three points, underlining key challenges that are deeply rooted in complex historical and political contexts. Special Envoy Prak Sokhonn highlighted that despite certain organisations being labelled as “terrorist groups” by the State Administration Council (SAC), he has managed to open the door for possible dialogues with these organisations under certain conditions. He noted the importance of discreet negotiations in reaching out to all parties that are necessary for inclusive dialogues and reiterated the need for strategic patience and understanding towards the work of the Special Envoy.
The panel was made up of Mr Min Zin, Executive Director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy (Myanmar), Dr Marzuki Darusman, Chairman and Founder of the Foundation for International Human Rights Reporting (FIHRRST), Indonesia, Ambassador Dr. Kobsak Chutikul, Adviser to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee of Thailand, Ms Adelina Dwi Ekawati Kamal, Associate Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Ms Ye-Min Wu, Regional Director, South and South East Asia, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.
Key highlights by speakers
Mr Min Zin highlighted that Myanmar has fundamentally changed since the military coup in 2021 and a return to normalcy will no longer be possible. He noted that although the legitimacy and credibility of the military government has weakened, violence in the country has militarised all aspects of life in Myanmar to serve partisan military objectives. He also pointed out that the Tatmadaw is not the sole driver of conflict as he observed that there has been an increase in inter-ethnic tension and clashes including tribalistic politics. Given challenging conditions on the ground, he believed that a new election or further peace negotiations may be inadequate to ensure peace but instead, a grand bargaining strategy needs to be in place. He underscored the implications of the Myanmar crisis on the region and towards ASEAN’s unity, as failing to address the crisis could lead to a refugee crisis and a rise in the illicit drugs trade. He also emphasised the important role that ASEAN may play in addressing the crisis, given that it has the support of the US, China and other major powers.
Ambassador Chutikul emphasised that while it is important to keep the peace process Myanmar-led, there also comes a time when international intervention and international coordinated assistance would be necessary to bring about progress. Following the suggestion of the Malaysian Foreign Minister, he called for the expansion of the Five-Point Consensus to cover other crucial aspects of the peacebuilding process, including the upcoming election, the Myanmar Constitution and democratic federalism. In addition, he also proposed the appointment of a permanent Special Envoy based in Yangon, to continue engaging with all stakeholders and to work on the expanded mandate. He acknowledged that the peacebuilding process takes time but reiterated that the immediate humanitarian and geopolitical implications of the crisis necessitate further action, beyond the Five-Point Consensus, to be taken to resolve this crisis. He also noted that the Ukraine situation has brought about a new element into the Myanmar crisis and should bring about a greater sense of urgency for the region.
Dr Darusman noted the challenges faced by the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair and highlighted that ASEAN must understand the nature of the conflict in order to resolve the crisis and address the root of the problem. In acknowledging the continuous violence in Myanmar, he highlighted the urgent need for the international community including some ASEAN countries to cut weapons and arms delivery to Myanmar. He noted that the Five-Point Consensus was akin to ‘putting the cart before the horse’ and that ASEAN’s approach would need to be reassessed. He also echoed Ambassador Chutikul’s call for an appointment of a Special Envoy based in Myanmar, adding that the Special Envoy should be an independent actor that represents ASEAN as a whole, and not merely an extension of a country’s foreign ministry. He also noted that despite the fact that the door is now open for negotiations, many ethnic armed organisations have yet to reach out to the military government for dialogue. He proposed that a change in the Tatmadaw’s leadership would perhaps encourage other parties to come to the negotiating table, and reiterated the importance of a democratic process on the way forward.
Ms Kamal agreed with Deputy Prime Minister Sokhonn that time was needed to resolve the conflict. Noting that dialogue and negotiations could possibly take longer than the duration of the term of the ASEAN Chairmanship, she suggested that a permanent special envoy could help to see through the whole negotiation process. She also pointed out that there were several challenges with utilising the AHA Centre to distribute humanitarian aid, due to the nature of the organisation to address natural disasters rather than man-made disasters as well as the possibility of manipulation by the Myanmar military. Therefore, she suggested that ASEAN should instead channel the assistance through local actors. Lastly, she emphasised the importance of ASEAN being inclusive in engaging with other parties in the conflict besides the Tatmadaw.
Ms Wu shared three concrete ways in which ASEAN may enhance its efforts in Myanmar, specifically through continuity, clarity and community. To ensure continuity in the process, she proposed attaching officials to the Special Envoy’s office to support the work of the Special Envoy by providing timely situational reports and analysis and in enhancing coordination. She noted that the ASEAN community can be more forthcoming and encouraging of the efforts of the Special Envoy as well as step up its humanitarian efforts. Lastly, she underscored the importance of clarity and having a united messaging on the Myanmar crisis to avoid misunderstandings which might lead to undesirable actions. She also noted the possible role of the ASEAN Institute of Peace and Reconciliation in providing relevant resources to address the conflict.
The Q&A session discussed questions such as how the weakened Tatmadaw might emerge from the Myanmar crisis and whether a similar situation that played out in Sri Lanka might also occur in Myanmar. The session also discussed the influence and relevance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, possible engagement with the National Unity Government as the main stakeholder, and the shortcomings of the Five-Point Consensus.
The webinar was attended by over 250 participants largely comprising members of the policy and research communities, with significant representation from the diplomatic corps, academia and media.