This week’s set of Asean meetings were seen as an opportunity for the bloc to evaluate its joint efforts in urging Myanmar’s junta to adhere to a pre-established plan for restoring democracy following a 2021 coup in the country.
However, revelations of the extent of Thailand’s unilateral communication with its violence-wracked neighbour’s military rulers underscore a significant regional divide, according to analysts. That schism was further put on display by a delay by Asean in sending out a joint communique, which was released late Thursday, two days after the bloc held its first set of talks for the week.
Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai on Wednesday said he had met jailed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi in prison on Sunday, adding that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate told him she “supported dialogue” to end her country’s internal crisis following a coup in February 2021.
The Thai official – currently serving in a caretaker capacity pending a post-election power transition in his country – described his visit as a “step in the right direction” in the peace process.
Observers who spoke to This Week in Asia sharply disagreed, saying the unilateral approach by Bangkok undermined the so-called Asean centrality principle, in which the bloc as a collective drives decision-making.
Asean’s plan to Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing to return to a path of democracy following his coup involves a Five-Point Consensus plan the military leader agreed with the bloc two months after he seized power. He has thus far been intransigent in implementing the peace plan, which has seen Asean freeze junta officials out of high-level engagements.
Charles Santiago, from the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights Group, said Pramudwinai’s move to meet Suu Kyi was a “brazen attempt” to undermine Asean’s collective Myanmar strategy.
Moreover, Indonesia – the bloc’s chair for 2023 – had also been undermined through the Thai moves, Santiago and others said. In its role as chair, Indonesia has conducted 110 contacts with various factions involved in Myanmar’s internal strife, with the hope that this would lead to talks on firmer footing.
These talks have featured the Myanmar junta’s foreign policy chief Wunna Maung Lwin as well as representatives of Cambodia, China, Laos, Vietnam, Japan and Bangladesh.
Singapore-based analyst Aaron Connelly said Thailand’s actions created a diplomatic track “parallel to Asean’s” in which not all Asean member states were consulted.
“The junta in Myanmar is trying to shift the venue for diplomacy dealing with the conflict there away from Asean, which has excluded it from any high-level meetings in response to its refusal to implement the Five-Point Consensus, to a Thai-led process that Don initiated in December 2022,” said Connelly, a research fellow on Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
Hunter Marston, a Southeast Asia-focused researcher at the Australian National University, said it was clear that Indonesia as Asean chair – and not individual countries – had the best tools to engage with all sides involved in Myanmar’s civil strife, including the civilian administration-in-exile which styles itself the National Unity Government (NUG).
The Indonesian foreign minister’s efforts, including via remarks at this week’s meetings, to characterise Thailand’s overtures as a “sideshow” were important to help Asean’s diplomatic efforts regain momentum, Marston said.
Indonesia also has the backing of Asean’s dialogue partners, such as the United States, to continue with its effort to promote inclusive dialogue in Myanmar, he added.
“In the last couple of weeks, Indonesia has met representatives of various ethnic groups and youth organisations linked to the [NUG’s armed wing] People’s Defence Force,” he said. “It’s been publicly sticking to its promises to engage all sides in dialogue, and that’s good because it does show the junta that Asean will engage with other stakeholders even if the Myanmar military does not want it to.”
The delay in the release of a joint document is believed to be due to disagreements on the wording of the section about Myanmar.
The document published on the Asean website on Friday morning referred to the Thai overtures. It noted that that “a number” of Asean states viewed Bangkok’s activities as a “positive development.
“We reaffirmed Asean unity and reiterated that any effort should support, in line with the Five Point Consensus and in coordination with the Chair of Asean,” the statement said.
Malaysia, a vocal critic of the junta, earlier urged Asean to strongly condemn the junta’s actions, including violence.
“I pressed for a stronger statement on this issue to be included in the joint communique of the Asean ministerial meeting,” Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir said in a statement late on Wednesday.
Lina Alexandra, head of the department of international relations with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia, suggested there were divisions among countries about the Five-Point Consensus.
“Some Asean member states are clearly raising the issue of Myanmar fatigue, about normalising [ties with] the junta,” she said. “Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are really opposed to this idea, because the junta is the culprit. What’s the point of having the Five-Point Consensus?”
Indonesia, which will hand over the reins of Asean chairmanship to Laos at the end of the year, has faced criticism over its intense behind-the-scenes efforts to broker talks not bearing fruit. However, observers such as Marston held a contrary view, noting its engagements with previously out-of-reach groups and the setting up of a dedicated office of special envoy to Myanmar in Jakarta.
Analysts have called for the bloc to explore other avenues, including extending the term of a special envoy to Myanmar beyond one year.
Source : SCMP