23 May 2024

When ASEAN leaders sit down for a summit to address the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, they know full well that the whole world will be watching. And they also realize that what is at stake is not only the lives of Myanmar people fighting for democracy on the streets, but also the future of the regional grouping.

But none of ASEAN countries is under any illusion that the task before their leaders will be an easy one. The unrelenting stand toward the pro-democracy protests by the Myanmar military conveyed through a recent interview with CNN is certainly a good reminder.  

The only promising sign so far, however,is that Myanmar has agreed to join thesummit, said a senior official of the Thai Foreign Ministry who sees it as an indication that the country’s military leadership is willing to interact with its ASEAN colleagues on thecrisis.    

While the summit will see the presence of the top leaders of the ASEAN member countries, it’s very unlikely that General Min Aung Hlaing, who is in full charge of the country after staging the coup on February 1, will be there.    He is expected to be represented by a deputy.

Though ASEAN very much hopes that a summit should be a demonstration of the grouping’s seriousness in helping to find a peaceful way out of the crisis in its own backyard, the fact is that the ASEAN leaders are still far from united in their views toward the turmoil in Myanmar.

Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have been much more outspoken on the violence in Myanmar than the rest of the grouping.  Meanwhile, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have been obviously aloof.  And these different approaches are likely to play out during the summit.

Thailand, meanwhile, has been cautious with its reactions to what is going on in Myanmar, frustrating critics who want to see the Prayut government taking a harsher stand against the military regime in Naypyidaw.Thailand hopes to use its good neighbourlyrelations with Myanmar to play a role in mediating a peaceful resolution to the crisiswithout having to appear to be too openly critical of the military regime.

“That Thailand has not spoken out as forcefully as some other countries doesn’t mean that it is doing nothing,” Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai told Thai PBS World.

Don said Thailand is committed to exploring every possible way to help find a peaceful solution to the Myanmar crisis.   “Such efforts, however, need cooperation from all sides and take time,” he said.

Despite some reservations, Thailand apparently is hopeful that Myanmar will be open to hearing views from its ASEAN friends at the summit. “Myanmar certainly knows that what is at stake is the ASEAN centrality and its credibility. But it remains to be seen how much it cares,” said the Thai official.

A “mini-roadmap” to get Myanmar out of the current bloody turmoil is something that some of the ASEAN countries are trying to put forth.  It may begin with the military junta agreeing to shorten the state of emergency and set out a specific timeframe for a general election. This, of course, would run counter to what Myanmar military spokesman Zaw Min Tun told CNN in a recent interview. He suggested that the current state of emergencywhich the coup leaders initially said would last one year could be extended to two years.

“It would be seen as a sign of goodwill. And the next step could be a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi – if she agrees,” said thesenior Thai official.

Convincing the former state counsellor and the leader of the National League of Democracy (NLD) to talk to the military juntawill certainly be a challenge.  “But if she does agree to and comes out afterward to address the public, that would make a big difference,” said the official.

The dialogue, he said, should be accompanied by the release of some of the political figures detained by the military since the coup coupled with a cessation of military operations against the armed ethnics groups.

And that should pave the way for attempts at reconciliation among the conflicting parties,” said the official who envisions the secondtier leaders on both the military and political sides working togetherafterwards.

It’s still unclear, however, how this line of thinking will be pursued at the summit as senior ASEAN officials still have yet to hammer out a common ground for their leaders to agree on.   What the four ASEAN countries that have been particularly vocal about the military crackdowns on the pro-democracy demonstrators in Myanmar will bring to the summit table is also a question.

As for Thailand, it would want to be seen as a moderating voice at the summit and ready to lend support to the “four like-minded” ASEAN countries if what they propose has the potential to strike a positive chord with Myanmar.

Under the watchful eye of the world, ASEAN countries will find it necessary to speak with one voice in impressing on the Myanmar military leadership the need to end the current bloodshed and to find a peaceful way out of the conflict.  “ASEAN needs to drive home the message that the crisis is no longer Myanmar’s internal affairs and it is seriously affecting the grouping as a whole,” said the Thai official who has been in continuous discussions with his ASEAN counterparts over the situation in Myanmar.

But at the end of the day, it’s how Myanmar responds to what its ASEAN friends will have to say at the summit that is most important.   It’s still anybody’s guess as to how open Myanmar will be to suggestions from its counterparts.  “Who knows? Myanmar may just want to use the summit as a forum to reiterate its stand,” said the official.

In a joint statement last week, Malaysia and Brunei said the summit will be convened at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta.   Myanmar, however, has made it known that it would prefer to have the summit hosted by Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah who has been less vocal about the crisis than most of the ASEAN leaders.  

It was Indonesian President Joko Widodo of Indonesia who first proposed the summit and Indonesia’s blunt remarks on the coup and violent crackdowns on protesters in Myanmar were certainly not lost on the military regime in Naypyidaw.

Should it be a face-to-face or a virtual summit is another major question being mulled by ASEAN senior officials.

“A physical summit means leaders will have to fly to the venue amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Would that mean they will be subject to a quarantine both prior to and after the meeting?” asked a senior Thai Foreign Ministry official.

But on the other hand, a virtual meeting would lack what ASEAN officials call the atmosphere of camaraderie which is necessary when discussing such a sensitive issue as the crisis in Myanmar.

The summit, whose date has yet to be decided, will be preceded by a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers to put a stamp on what is agreed upon by the senior officials to ensure that their leaders will have something to tell the world after their much-anticipated meeting.

“We know that the whole world is watching. And nobody wants this summit to fail,” said the senior Thai official.

By Thepchai Yong