In contrast to the proposals of at least one Asean leader, Asean may continue to allow Myanmar’s military junta to be represented at some bloc meetings, and Asean will continue to follow the existing Five-Point Consensus plan, according to a Friday Asean leaders’ statement.
While Myanmar’s military leaders will continue to be excluded from Asean summits and foreign ministers’ meetings, the bloc would potentially “review” Myanmar’s representation at other Asean events, the statement said.
Asean leaders on Friday were divided on whether to allow the Myanmar junta to participate in bloc activities. Indonesian President Joko Widodo told reporters at the Asean summit in Phnom Penh that he was seeking to exclude Myanmar’s junta from more Asean functions, Bloomberg News reported.
Yet the bloc later “reaffirmed that Myanmar remains an integral part of Asean,” according to the leaders’ statement. “Asean is committed to assist Myanmar in finding a peaceful and durable solution to the current crisis,” it said.
Asean’s Coordinating Council will “further review Myanmar’s representation at Asean meetings, if the situation so requires,” the statement added.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said that while some countries sought to “expel” Myanmar, “that stance…is not logical.” He called for Asean to resolve the issue “step by step.”
Alongside Indonesia’s criticism, Malaysian diplomats have openly questioned the effectiveness of the Five-Point Consensus in recent months.
“Malaysia will also be reiterating its position regarding the situation in Myanmar and calling for a more decisive stance by Asean in discussions at the Asean summits,” Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a Wednesday press release.
The Malaysian and Indonesian foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment.
“Maintaining the Status Quo”
The Asean leaders’ statement paralleled key points from a leaked draft document allegedly prepared by Cambodia at an emergency Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Jakarta on October 27, first published on Thursday by Thailand-based NGO Fortify Rights.
The document called for Asean to “maintain the status quo” regarding the Myanmar junta’s participation in Asean.
Human rights activists and Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) slammed Asean’s intent to maintain the Five-Point Consensus and allow Myanmar’s military to attend Asean meetings.
The plan, agreed to in April 2021 by nine Asean leaders and Myanmar’s leader Min Aung Hlaing, called for an immediate end to violence in the country, dialogue among all parties, humanitarian assistance provided by Asean, and the appointment of a special envoy and the envoy’s visit to Myanmar.
“ASEAN is sticking with the Five-Point Consensus which has failed to yield any tangible results in the almost two years since the coup,” said Patrick Phnongsathorn of Fortify Rights. “With the decisions it’s taken at this summit, ASEAN is continuing to fail the people of Myanmar who are paying with their lives.”
Allowing Myanmar military representatives to attend bloc meetings means “Asean has unilaterally disarmed, giving up the only meaningful political leverage that is immediately within their reach,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia Division. “This is both foolish, and betrays a lack of commitment to take the hard measures that will be needed to truly affect the situation in Myanmar.”
While acknowledging in its Friday statement that “little progress” had been made implementing the Five-Point Consensus since it was established in April 2021, the Asean leaders’ statement maintained the plan would remain “our valid reference and should be implemented in its entirety.”
Asean noted that the bloc’s foreign ministers will develop “an implementation plan that outlines concrete, practical and measurable indicators with specific timeline to support the Five-Point Consensus.”
Human rights observers say allowing Myanmar to remain in the bloc and following the existing peace plan highlight Asean’s unwillingness to take meaningful, effective action to solve the crisis. They say the policies amount to appeasement which further legitimizes Myanmar’s junta, even as the military continues causing mass violence and rights abuses against civilians.
Asean has acknowledged the Myanmar military’s ongoing violence was “against the spirit” of the Five-Point Consensus and condemned a recent uptick in killings, including a Myanmar military airstrike which killed 60 people at a concert in late October, according to a November 2 statement.
“With the blood of the Burmese people dripping from their hands daily, why does Asean judge that these military commanders will change mid-course?” Robertson said. “Nothing in the history of the Myanmar military indicates that is the case.”
Engaging with Junta’s Counter-Proposal
In the alleged draft document, Asean had said it would “try to find converging points” between its peace plan and the military’s counter-proposal Five Point Roadmap. The junta’s August 2021 proposals called for “free and fair multiparty democratic elections” after the end of the junta-declared state of emergency.
The Asean leaders’ statement Friday noted the bloc “shall consider exploring other approaches that could support the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus.”
But human rights advocates and Myanmar’s opposition government say any elections held under the junta should be considered illegitimate, given that an estimated 12,000 political prisoners remain behind bars and dozens of opposition politicians have been assassinated.
“The Myanmar junta has sought to systematically annihilate all opposition to its rule” since assuming power in a February 2021 coup, Fortify Rights stated.
Human rights observers have urged Asean to include Myanmar’s “legitimate” NUG in place of junta representatives at Asean events, but NUG has yet to be included in Asean events.
“The military junta has never respected the Asean consensus to end the violence, nor the will of the people of Myanmar,” said NUG Acting President Duwa Lashi La in a Tuesday statement.
“The military junta’s proposed elections are not only a sham and illegal, but they will certainly cause greater instability in Myanmar and the region,” he said. “We earnestly hope that Asean rejects the junta’s sham elections.”
Not Considering Sanctions
Failure to act more effectively would soon severely damage Asean’s credibility and that further attempts at dialogue with the military junta were naive, given the ongoing displays of violence, said Debbie Stothard, coordinator for the rights group Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma.
“The international community has consistently said they will follow Asean’s lead,” Stothard said. “Unfortunately, Asean hasn’t been able to lead.”
Asean should opt for punitive measures against the junta such as sanctions targeting the junta’s profitable oil and gas reserves, especially aviation fuels used for air strikes, human rights activists say.
NUG spokesperson Dr. Sasa praised the new U.S. government issued sanctions against arm dealer Kyaw Min Oo, whose company supplied Myanmar’s military.
“The junta is conducting airstrikes on the civilians targeting schools and hospitals, which are war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Dr. Sasa said. “The military must be cut off from the tools of their bloody trade.”
“We once again request that all governments and the international community to immediately place aggressive, targeted sanctions on the military regime and those who support and supply them,” he added.
Kanharith, Cambodia’s Minister of Information, said Asean would not consider enacting sanctions against Myanmar.
“First, we do not interfere with the internal affairs of each member state,” Kanharith said. “And second, we resolve the problem quietly.”
Asean summit spokesperson Kung Phaok and Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Chum Sounry did not respond to requests for comment.
At his remarks on Friday’s Asean opening ceremony, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the Myanmar crisis was a central issue for the bloc and all countries shared “a sense of urgency.” He added Asean’s priorities were maintaining “unity, solidarity and centrality.”
Fortify Rights’ Phnongsathorn noted the contents of Asean’s draft strategy did not mean it was too late for the bloc to take a more confrontational approach. But unless Cambodia changed its position, Asean’s “paralysis” towards Myanmar would persist due to the bloc’s consensus requirement, he added.
“While Thailand and Cambodia are maintaining their line on [Myanmar], we won’t see any action from Asean as a whole,” he said.
Additional reporting by Khuon Narim and Sorn Sarath
This article was updated on November 11, 2022, to include information from the Asean leaders’ statement.
Correction: The article and headline was updated on November 12, 2022, to clarify statements by Asean leaders and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith.