BANGKOK, Nov 6 (The Straits Times/ANN): The Nov 11 Asean summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, will be crunch time for the bloc’s leaders.
The 10-nation bloc has been grappling in vain with Myanmar’s political and humanitarian crisis for almost two years. It now has to decide how to respond to this impasse, and this response may ultimately reshape the consensus-driven grouping.
Like on previous occasions over the year, Myanmar will likely not be represented at this summit. Although several ministers controlled by the Myanmar junta continue to be part of Asean proceedings, the bloc has shut junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and his Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin out of high-level meetings by inviting only “non-political” representatives from Myanmar.
The junta has objected to this, accusing the bloc of breaching its own principles of consensus and non-interference. It says it will not be bound by the outcomes of the Oct 27 foreign ministers’ meeting – held in Jakarta, Indonesia – conducted in its absence.
Little meaningful progress has been made on Asean’s “five-point consensus” since it was forged in April 2021 in Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s presence. Contrary to this blueprint, violence has escalated and political executions restarted. There is no dialogue among Myanmar’s key stakeholders.
While Asean’s humanitarian aid agency has dispatched some assistance to Myanmar, it has been criticised for doing so through the junta instead of neutral parties.
Meanwhile, the junta continues to deny access to the civilian leaders it has put behind bars, despite receiving two official visits in 2022 from Asean special envoy Prak Sokhonn, who is also Cambodia’s Foreign Minister.
More than 7,000 civilians in Myanmar have been killed since the coup, and more than one million people have had to flee their homes. The growing armed conflict has created legal black holes in some areas, quickly turning them into safe havens for regional criminal networks.
The situation has challenged Asean’s relevance as it tries to navigate choppy geopolitical waters. Cambodia, which chairs Asean in 2022, is girding itself for some tough exchanges as the leaders of the United States, China and Russia convene in the same room on Nov 13 for the East Asia Summit, against the backdrop of US-China tensions and the Ukraine war.
While Asean wants to avoid being held hostage to the Myanmar crisis, analysts say that would require changes that may unsettle some member states.
The prolonged absence of Myanmar from high-level meetings – and the bloc’s possible tougher measures against the junta – has spurred discussion of how it can continue progress on key initiatives. This comes at a time when a high-level task force helping to craft the Asean community’s post-2025 vision is exploring options for institutional reforms.
Asean’s decision-making processes are also being reviewed, according to Ms Elizabeth Buensuceso, a Philippines representative in this task force.
Dr Lina Alexandra, who heads the Department of International Relations at Indonesia’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told The Straits Times: “From the beginning, we knew that the Myanmar crisis would be the entry point for a new Asean, in terms of how Asean deals with internal crises.”
A few clues as to what is in store at the upcoming summit emerged after the special Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in the Indonesian capital on Oct 27.
Asean stands by its five-point consensus, Cambodia said.
The expulsion of Myanmar is not on the table, disclosed Mr Sidharto Suryodipuro, director-general for Asean cooperation at Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry.
But Indonesia, which will chair Asean in 2023 under a rotating arrangement, has said it counts Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) as one of the stakeholders Asean should engage with, in order to carry out its mandate to facilitate dialogue among all parties concerned.
Neither Indonesia nor Asean has so far publicly engaged with NUG, which the Myanmar junta has denounced as a terrorist organisation.
Dr Lina advocates using the “Asean minus X” formula to move forward on key decisions. This formula is currently applied to economic matters, letting some Asean states proceed with liberalisation ahead of others. It is not clear if expanding its use would undermine the consensus-driven bloc.
But Ms Buensuceso is optimistic there is enough space within Asean’s Charter for the bloc to manoeuvre.
“Asean is still functioning the way it is used to,” she said. “It’s like water, adapting to the shape of the container. It’s still the same water. It’s navigating its way around the container where it has been placed. This is where Asean is now.” - The Straits Times/ANN