Myanmar aid convoy attack raises stakes for under-fire ASEAN

As leaders of the Southeast Asian bloc meet in Indonesia, the crisis triggered by the February 2021 military coup strikes close to home.

A soldier walks past ASEAN flags at the venue in Labuan Bajo
Myanmar is due to top the agenda as ASEAN leaders meet in Indonesia [Willy Kurniawan/Reuters]

The deepening crisis in Myanmar looks to be a heightened priority as members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet in Indonesia after an aid convoy carrying diplomats from the region came under fire in the troubled country’s east.

The officials escaped unharmed, and no group has claimed responsibility for the unprecedented attack in Shan State.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the current chairman of ASEAN, immediately condemned the incident, saying, “Stop using force. Stop violence because it’s the people who will be victims.”

The violence is indicative of the human rights catastrophe that has engulfed Myanmar after a military coup in February 2021 – one that ASEAN is accused of failing to address.

Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), which includes democratically elected legislators the military removed in the coup, told Al Jazeera that ASEAN needs to immediately suspend talks with the generals and instead liaise with the NUG as the legitimate representative of the country.

“ASEAN should recognise the NUG as the true representative of Myanmar,” NUG Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung told Al Jazeera. “ASEAN should and must engage with different stakeholders, not just with the military junta.”

A view of the meeting room at the Asean summit in Indonesia showing Myanmar's empty chair
The Myanmar chair sits empty at an ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia. The NUG says it should have representation [Mast Irham/pool via Reuters]

Myanmar was admitted to ASEAN under a previous military government, but top military-appointed ministers were excluded from ASEAN meetings shortly after the coup, and Zin Mar Aung told Al Jazeera that the Myanmar seat was likely to remain vacant at this week’s summit In Labuan Bajo with neither the military nor the NUG in attendance.

The group is meeting from May 9-11.

The so-called Five Point Consensus, a peace plan agreed by coup leader Min Aung Hlaing at a previous summit in 2021 and since entirely ignored, is emblematic of the failure of ASEAN’s diplomatic initiatives, according to analysts.

The consensus included provisions for an immediate end to violence, dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special envoy, humanitarian assistance by ASEAN and a visit by the bloc’s special envoy to Myanmar to meet with all parties.

Rather than an end to the violence, however, Myanmar’s military has escalated attacks on civilians and resistance fighters, including hanging four political prisoners and launching an air attack last month on a village gathering in the Sagaing region, which killed dozens of people.

Zin Mar Aung told Al Jazeera that the ASEAN summit was a chance to amend the plan, involve the NUG and ensure accountability.

“The Five Point Consensus alone is not enough,” she said. “There is no binding or accountable mechanism, [and] there is no implementation. The Five Point Consensus has been agreed by the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing himself, but he didn’t take accountability, [and] he didn’t keep his promise.”

“Without the NUG, there will be no fulfillment of the Five Point Consensus,” she said.

Aileen Bacalso, from the regional advocacy group Forum Asia, agreed.

“The Five Point Consensus has no clear implementation plan,” she told Al Jazeera. “If they continue to rely on the Five Point Consensus as it is, ASEAN will never be able to make meaningful intervention to resolving the crisis in Myanmar conflict.”

ASEAN divided

Bacalso said apparent divisions among ASEAN members on how to deal with the coup leaders had also undermined its attempts to resolve the issue and restore peace.

She singled out Thailand’s government for continuing to send key officials to meet Myanmar’s military leaders and shore up their legitimacy. Thai Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai travelled last month to Naypyidaw, where he met Min Aung Hlaing.

“[This] shows that the ASEAN does not have a common position any more,” she said.

“Despite Thailand’s reasoning for including the junta in meetings to learn about [developments in the conflict], it should also engage with the NUG as it is also stated in the Five Point Consensus to engage with all parties,” Bacalso said.

Cambodia has also been supportive of engagement with Myanmar’s military leaders. Prime Minister Hun Sen travelled to the country in January 2022, the first foreign leader to do so after the coup.

Other members – such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore – have leaned towards a tougher approach, but rights groups say they need to go further.

In an open letter to ASEAN leaders, Forum Asia highlighted key steps it believes are necessary for a peaceful resolution, calling on regional powers to stop “legitimising the military junta by cutting bilateral ties” and to create “tangible action to stop the military junta’s violence and atrocity crimes”.

The group also called on ASEAN to organise inclusive dialogue “with all relevant stakeholders and parties”, including the NUG, representatives of ethnic groups fighting the military government and civil society organisations.

Hampering further action, however, is ASEAN’s principle of non-interference, which is enshrined in the ASEAN Charter.

It means states are not allowed to engage directly in the internal affairs of another state and direct action, such as a peacekeeping mission, may not be undertaken, leaving negotiations and peace plans the main viable options.

However, Patrick Phongsathorn, senior advocacy specialist with the human rights organisation Fortify Rights, told Al Jazeera that such negotiations must take place with stakeholders other than the military.

“It’s now high time for ASEAN to realise that the junta is not a genuine counterpart in the bloc’s search for peace,” he said.

“ASEAN should also now get behind the democratic forces that do genuinely want peace in Myanmar,” Phongsathorn said. “They can start to do this by inviting the NUG to take up Myanmar’s seat at the ASEAN table.”

‘Wake-up call’

Like Forum Asia, Phongsathorn argued there are a range of vital stakeholders who need to be involved if a peaceful resolution is to stand any chance of success.

Along with the military and the National Unity Government, which hold sway over different provinces in Myanmar, ethnic armed organisations, such as the Karen National Union and Kachin Independence Army, also have great regional influence.

Such armed groups have been fighting the military since long before the coup – the Karen since the end of the Second World War.

Phongsathorn also told Al Jazeera that civil society groups and young people must also be part of any dialogue.

“It is essential that groups and governments looking to resolve the crisis engage a wide variety of stakeholders, including the NUG, ethnic resistance organisations and, most importantly, young and marginalised individuals who have the biggest stake in Myanmar’s future,” he said.

“Regional powers and international allies should now act to diplomatically isolate the junta, drain it of its resources and seek accountability for its crimes,” he said. “The Myanmar military must be removed from public life, so that the country can return to the path toward democracy and development it was on prior to the coup.”

The ASEAN Secretariat did not respond to an Al Jazeera email requesting comment.

Aftermath of strike on Pa Zi Gyi village
Myanmar has descended further into violence since the Five Point Consensus was signed. The military has been accused of killing dozens of civilians in an an air attack on a Sagaing village last month [File: Kyunhla Activists Group via AP}

Experts said the attack on the aid convoy, which Widodo described as a “shootout”, should be a warning to the regional bloc.

“The attack on the diplomats’ convoy should serve as a wake-up call for ASEAN that blithely delivering humanitarian assistance into a politically polarised, violent conflict is not a recipe for progress,” Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement.

State media blamed “terrorists” for the attack and published photos of the convoy’s damaged vehicles.

The NUG has rejected accusations that the attack was the work of its People’s Defence Forces.

The military uses the word “terrorist” to describe all kinds of opponents.

Robertson said it was time ASEAN employed “real pressure tactics” to force the military government into negotiations, including imposing sanctions, cutting off its arms supplies and speaking publicly to the NUG.

“That’s the sort of action that will make junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing realize that ignoring ASEAN could come with increasingly harsh consequences,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera