ASEAN urged to step up efforts for Myanmar stability and development

Experts discuss the future of ASEAN at a webinar held by Thailand-based think tank Institute of Security and International Studies on Nov 19, 2021. (SCREENSHOT VIA WEB)

With Myanmar expected to remain a key focus for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year, experts at a webinar on Nov 19 called on member states of the regional grouping to step up efforts to resolve the situation in the country.

“Myanmar will continue to be a big agenda for ASEAN, but how to find a solution will be critical,” said Chheang Vannarith, president of Asia Vision Institute, a think tank in Cambodia.

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Noting that member states have voiced different views toward Myanmar, Chheang said he does not want the Myanmar situation to become a dividing issue but rather one that unites regional countries.

“It depends on how ASEAN can build consensus on Myanmar and how they can effectively address the Myanmar issue,” he said. 

Chheang was speaking at an online forum titled “ASEAN at New Crossroads” that was held by the Institute of Security and International Studies, or ISIS Thailand, at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The virtual event brought together regional experts to share their insights on the ten-nation bloc’s future under Cambodia’s chairmanship next year, and the Myanmar crisis, among other topics.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. This is the third time Cambodia would be leading the ASEAN since it became a full-fledged member of the bloc in 1999.

The situation in Myanmar has been a key challenge for the regional group throughout the year after the Myanmar military detained Aung San Suu Kyi, along with some other political leaders, and declared a state of emergency on Feb 1. The state power was transferred to Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, who is now the chairman of Myanmar’s State Administration Council.

Lina Alexandra, senior researcher at the Department of International Relations at the Indonesia-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the Myanmar situation should be the priority issue in terms of restoring ASEAN stability and unity.

It is “very important” to consider the Myanmar issue as a key priority agenda, Alexandra said, adding that ASEAN must show that it is responding to problems within its own group.

Noting that Cambodia has expressed a possibility that it will appoint a new ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar for its term, Alexandra said the current special envoy should be reappointed and given bigger support as it is difficult to see any fruitful result within only one-year term.

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During a meeting in April, ASEAN leaders reached a five-point consensus on the situation in Myanmar, which includes selecting a special envoy of the ASEAN chair to facilitate mediation of the dialogue process and to visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.

In August, Brunei’s second minister for foreign affairs, Erywan Yusof, was appointed as special envoy to Myanmar but he has yet to make a visit to the troubled nation. 

Gwen Robinson, senior fellow of ISIS Thailand, said the statement by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the past ASEAN summit might signal a diversion of the bloc’s attitude towards Myanmar.

Exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and events since Feb 1, Myanmar is facing a humanitarian crisis with about 3 million people requiring assistance, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in September

In October, the ASEAN summit was held without a representative from Myanmar. Though Brunei, the ASEAN chair for this year, said Myanmar remains “a part of the ASEAN family”, Hun Sen said Myanmar’s absence at the summit is because the country abandoned its right in the ASEAN’s framework and that the bloc is in the situation of “ASEAN minus one” because of Myanmar.

Besides political reasons, Gwen Robinson, senior fellow of ISIS Thailand, said the situation in Myanmar is alarming due to real concerns over humanitarian crises.

Exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and events since Feb 1, Myanmar is facing a humanitarian crisis with about 3 million people requiring assistance, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in September.

In June, the UN said that about 230,000 people have been displaced by fighting in Myanmar since Feb 1.

Robinson said it is also important to note the unprecedented diplomatic activities recently by high-level envoys from countries including China, Thailand and Japan, in addition to the visit to Myanmar by former United States ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson.

Sun Guoxiang, special envoy for Asian affairs of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visited Myanmar on Nov 15, the ministry’s spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Nov 16. Sun met with Min Aung Hlaing and other union ministers.

“As a friendly neighbor of Myanmar, China supports all parties in Myanmar in seeking political settlement through dialogue and consultation under the constitutional and legal framework,” said Zhao.

Paruedee Nguitragool, assistant professor in international relations at the Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, said a comprehensive reform is needed for ASEAN to overcome its current challenges, both as a whole and for individual countries.

“A comprehensive reform is certainly needed in order to make ASEAN a central platform that these members can really rely on and turn to in managing regional challenges and also in managing its external relations,” said Pareudee.

It should, at least, respect all the schedules and deadlines and implement regional plans and activities that are necessary to move the bloc forward, said Pareudee.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of ISIS Thailand and a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, moderated the Nov 19 online forum.