OPINION: ASEAN needs a well-rounded special envoy on Myanmar

Saifuddin Abdullah, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister (Photo by Reuters)

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah recently proposed that the special envoy of the ASEAN chair should be granted a tenure of more than a year and that the person appointed need not be a foreign minister.

The new idea came about because, in the past 18 months, the ASEAN special envoy, who also holds the foreign minister portfolio, has had to deal with a myriad of issues related to the ASEAN chair. Furthermore, the transitional period shortened the one-year timeframe of the special envoy’s responsibility.

The idea should be given support, as the crisis in Myanmar is reaching a critical stage. The military junta in Nay Pyi Taw remains intransigent and has yet to implement the ASEAN 5-point consensus (5PC). The peace roadmap calls for an immediate cessation of violence, the holding of dialogue with all key stakeholders, the appointment of a special envoy to facilitate mediation, meeting with all the stakeholders and allowing ASEAN to provide humanitarian assistance.

For the time being, the junta, which is officially known as the State Administrative Council, has allowed the special envoy to meet with only some of the stakeholders in Myanmar and approached action plans for humanitarian assistance half-heartedly.

At the recent annual meeting in Phnom Penh, the ASEAN foreign ministers expressed disappointment at the junta’s overall attitude related to the organisation and its 5PC. Furthermore, in their closed door discussions, they expressed a readiness to impose new restrictions on Myanmar, if there is no substantive progress on the ASEAN roadmap.

So far, Malaysia has been the only ASEAN member to meet with representatives of the National Unity Government (NUG), which is currently fighting the military junta. Last September, the NUG set up the so-called People’s Defence Forces (PDF), to wage war against the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’smilitary). Of late, some ASEAN members have threatened to meet the NUG, which has been described as a terrorist group by the junta.

Saifuddin also suggested that, if need be, ASEAN should engage with dialogue partners. In fact, ASEAN has been engaging with dialogue partners from the very beginning. They are strong supporters of 5PC. China and India, two key dialogue partners, are on the same page as ASEAN. Both share a border with Myanmar and, together, they face common challenges emanating from the conflict inside Myanmar. Other dialogue partners, such as the US, Australia, the UK and the EU, have already provided humanitarian assistance through the ASEAN-led mechanism.

In addition, ASEAN engages with UN-led agencies, such as UNICEF, the WHO and the WFP, which play an important role in providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar. The ASEAN chair is also in touch with the special envoy of UN Secretary General, Noeleen Heyzer, to coordinate efforts and initiatives to promote the peace process in Myanmar.

Truth be told, after the coup on February 1st, 2021, ASEAN foreign ministers could not immediately agree on the choice of special envoy. To avoid further delay, they decided on the current formula, to have a special envoy who is also theforeign minister of the rotational chair.

With the new proposal from Malaysia, it is a good time to shortlist candidates who could fit the profile for this challenging task. The person chosen must be sensitive to the complexity of Myanmar’s unique history, internal dynamicsand ethnicity. He or she must be able to represent ASEAN in all fora and communicate effectively with all the stakeholders in Myanmar, as well as with dialogue partners.


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