Southeast Asia leaders struggle with Myanmar crisis at summit

ASEAN leaders blocked Myanmar’s military ruler, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, from attending the meeting in Cambodia.

Special forces stand guard outside the venue for the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 9, 2022
Special forces stand guard outside the venue for the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 9, 2022 [Vincent Thian/AP Photo]

Southeast Asian leaders have demanded that Myanmar’s military rulers implement a peace plan aimed at stopping the bloodshed in the country where thousands have been killed since the army seized power in a coup last year.

The Myanmar crisis dominated the first day of talks on Friday at the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

ASEAN leaders blocked Myanmar’s military ruler, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, from attending the gathering over the spiralling violence in his country, and amid frustration that the generals in Myanmar are uninterested in implementing a peace plan.

Leaders of the regional power bloc had agreed to a “five-point consensus” peace plan with the Myanmar leadership in April last year, but the military has so far ignored it.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo told reporters on the sidelines of the summit on Friday that he had proposed broadening the ban on Myanmar political representatives at ASEAN events – something urged by human rights groups.

“Indonesia is deeply disappointed the situation in Myanmar is worsening,” Widodo said.

“We must not allow the situation in Myanmar to define ASEAN,” he added.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the ASEAN leaders had agreed on a 15-point plan the military must act on or face serious consequences.

“This is a warning, this is a strong message from the leaders,” Marsudi told reporters.

In the 15-point statement thrashed out over two days of difficult talks among foreign ministers, the bloc agreed to “engage all stakeholders soon”.

“Engagement would be done in a flexible and informal manner, primarily undertaken by the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar,” the leaders’ statement said.

But critics will see another warning to Myanmar as largely kicking the matter down the road.

Later on Friday, the leaders stressed the need for “an implementation plan that outlines concrete, practical and measurable indicators” with a firm timeline for the implementation of peace – but they did not agree on one.

They also said they would call upon the United Nations “and our external partners” to support ASEAN’s peace efforts.

With Myanmar excluded, talks among ASEAN’s nine other members – Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei – about how to pressure Myanmar’s military to comply with the peace plan had been continuing in Phnom Penh since midweek.

Singapore and Malaysia, and at times Brunei, backed Indonesia’s calls for strengthening the measures against Myanmar, according to a diplomat with access to the discussions.

However, Thailand – backed by Cambodia and Laos – has been pushing back against the Indonesian proposal, arguing that extending the ban on Myanmar’s representation would amount to a de facto suspension, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

An empty chair for Myanmar delegation is pictured at a meeting with representatives of ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) during the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 10, 2022 [Cindy Liu/Reuters]
An empty chair for the absent Myanmar delegation is pictured at a meeting with representatives of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on November 10, 2022 [Cindy Liu/Reuters]

Within the bloc, Indonesia has been one of the main voices calling for tougher action on the military government, along with Malaysia and Singapore.

Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from Phnom Penh, said given the intractability of the Myanmar issue, some of the regional leaders will be happy to address other matters affecting the bloc.

“We saw Hun Sen talking about the war in Ukraine, the rising inflation crisis, the global supply chain problems, post-COVID recovery, and I think those are going to be things very much on the agenda. Those are obviously global issues, but they are having a big impact here in the region as well,” Cheng said.

“I think there is also a concern here that the leaders’ statement, which is traditionally issued at the end of the ASEAN summit – with so many contentious issues – might be very complicated to formulate,” he said.

“Nonetheless, as often happens at these things, some kind of formula is made to appease everybody concerned. It may have to be considerably watered down, though.”

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr told his fellow leaders on Friday that “speedy implementation” of the peace plan was needed, and he also called for ASEAN to open contacts with opposition groups in Myanmar.

Among the opposition, the National Unity Government (NUG) is a self-declared parallel body dominated by former legislators from the government of removed leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.

The NUG considers itself to be Myanmar’s legitimate government while the military regards the group as “terrorists”.

Engaging with the NUG would be a significant step for ASEAN.

Myanmar’s junta on Friday slammed a decision by the ASEAN to engage with the opposition groups.

“Myanmar strongly objects to and condemns the attempts by ASEAN member states to engage with those unlawful and terrorist organisations through any means and forms,” the junta’s foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.

The junta also slammed its exclusion from the summit as “one-sided and malicious”.

Earlier this month, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan warned that the Myanmar military had “a very high tolerance for pain, very high tolerance for isolation” and the crisis could take decades to resolve.

Myanmar state media have castigated ASEAN’s involvement in the country’s internal affairs, accusing the bloc of being a “lapdog for the US” while the military has warned against imposing a timeline on the peace process.

ASEAN also announced on Friday that it had agreed “in principle” to admit East Timor as the bloc’s 11th member.

East Timor, which is officially called the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, has been granted observer status while a road map for full membership is worked out.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies