Soldiers are pictured outside the Central Bank of Myanmar as people gathered to protest against the military coup, in Yangon on February 15, 2021. Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main

YANGON and SINGAPORE – Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders met over the weekend in what was the first concerted international effort to deescalate the deadly political crisis in Myanmar.

Though points of consensus were reached at the April 24 meeting in Jakarta, there are so far no discernable signs of change on the ground.

The summit marked the first international trip taken by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of the State Administration Council (SAC), since seizing power in a February 1 coup d’etat. Turmoil has since engulfed the Southeast Asian nation, with over 750 people killed and more than 3,300 jailed in an internationally condemned crackdown.

“In Jakarta, ASEAN received a commitment personally from the Tatmadaw’s chief to halt all violence. From now on, the situation on the ground would serve as a barometer whether the Tatmadaw means what they said,” said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok.

At least three people have been killed by Myanmar’s security forces since Saturday’s summit, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) monitoring group and national media reports. Moreover, a statement on ASEAN meeting from the SAC signaled it is already walking back its relevant commitments until “the situation returns to stability.”

Pressure has been mounting on ASEAN to broker a solution to the crisis, which threatens to deteriorate into a multi-front civil war as pro-democracy forces organize an armed resistance and lobby for international recognition of a parallel “National Unity Government” (NUG). It remains to be seen whether the ASEAN-led process will be capable of effecting change.

“I think the meeting was successful as it represents the first step of the regional organization to kick off the so-called ‘regional process’ to find a durable solution,” said a sanguine Kavi. “The five-step consensus is the first step that serves as a rough roadmap which ASEAN would use to proceed in days and months to come.”

Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing (L) is greeted at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta international airport in Tangerang for the ASEAN summit. Photo: Handout/AFP

Activists and observers in Myanmar, however, have much less faith in the regional organization’s capacity to resolve the conflict. Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) protesters behind weeks of economically crippling strikes have made fresh calls for an intensification of their campaign following talks in the Indonesian capital.

“We do not have any hope for ASEAN and we don’t think Min Aung Hlaing will follow any of these agreements,” said Ma Aye, a 26-year-old protester from Yangon. “He only cares about consolidating his power and influence. He does not bat an eye over international pressure and this is why he has continued to kill innocent civilians.”

Among the five points agreed to by ASEAN leaders – including Myanmar’s army chief – were the immediate cessation of violence and exercise of utmost restraint; the commencement of “constructive dialogue among all parties”; provisions of humanitarian aid; and the appointment of a special envoy entitled to “meet with all parties concerned.”

The leaders of Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Brunei were present at the meeting, along with the foreign ministers of Laos, Thailand and the Philippines. Addressing the media, Malaysia’s premier said the outcome of the summit was “beyond our expectation,” while Singapore’s leader added that the process still had a long way to go.

“This consensus is just a step to help make a primary agreement between the ASEAN and Myanmar’s junta in ceasing violence [and] starting dialogues on restoring the legitimate regime,” said Ha Hoang Hop, an international relations expert at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “It is meaningful, but the consensus faces risks to be adhered to.”

Though the consensus statement refers to “all parties,” an agreement to free political prisoners was crucially not one of the consensus points included in the final statement, though such language had reportedly been included in an earlier draft statement. Instead, the ASEAN chair’s statement mentioned the meeting “heard calls” for their release.

Among those in military detention is Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) government, President Win Myint and other lawmakers. The NLD won a landslide victory at November polls that the military alleges were fraudulent, a charge denied by the country’s election commission. Several election commissioners are now also in detention.  

A banner featuring Aung San Suu Kyi is displayed on February 15 as protesters demonstrating against the military coup surround police, who had blocked off the street leading to the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD), in Yangon that day. Photo: AFP / Ye Aung Thu

Suu Kyi, 75, has been in custody since the coup and is only able to meet her lawyers via monitored video link. A military spokesperson was reported as saying that her requests for in-person meetings with her lawyer have been denied on grounds that “illegal communications” related to the directing of protests could potentially be conducted.

The ousted NLD leader, whose independence hero father Aung San founded Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, faces a prison sentence of up to 26 years on various politicized charges. Observers say that no tangible political resolution is possible without the junta’s firm commitment to release and negotiate with elected civilian leaders.

Naypyidaw has declared the NUG, formed by elected parliamentarians, leaders of anti-coup protests and ethnic minority organizations, to be unlawful and treasonous, raising questions as to whether ASEAN’s yet to be appointed special envoy will even be allowed to visit Myanmar for the purpose of formally engaging pro-democracy forces.  

Christine Schraner Burgener, the United Nations special envoy for Myanmar, has thus far been refused entry into Myanmar. She reportedly met Min Aung Hlaing on the sidelines of the Jakarta summit and requested permission to visit Myanmar. Burgener has declined to comment on whether the junta would grant her access. 

“If at some point in the future the military is ready to negotiate, it will need somebody to negotiate through and an ASEAN special envoy is as good as you can get,” said a Yangon-based analyst who requested anonymity. “But the military is not ready to give up yet, and probably did not go into this [ASEAN meeting] in good faith.”

The analyst said that the military was only interested in “the weakest statement possible” and went to Jakarta to shore up its international legitimacy. “Morally, one would hope that ASEAN would have done more to listen to the NUG and invite it formally and not invite the junta formally. But, ASEAN is just not that kind of institution.” 

A business executive in Yangon who requested anonymity remarked that “those hoping ASEAN can effectively put pressure on Min Aung Hlaing to effectively stop the junta’s violence and restore economic activities are extremely disappointed with [the] bloc.” The executive described the organization’s approach to dealing with the coup leader as “shameful.”

Indeed, critics took the regional bloc to task for inviting Min Aung Hliang to the meeting as the country’s sole representative, though advocates of ASEAN’s approach say the general’s presence was not recognition of legitimacy but of reality, and that engaging the de facto government in power is a necessary prerequisite for pressuring an end to violence.

A Myanmar protester holds a bullet as protests against the military coup and detention of elected government members continue in Hlaing Thayar Township, Yangon, Myanmar, March 15, 2021. Photo: Stringer / Anadolu Agency via AFP

“The reason ASEAN chose to engage with Naypyidaw was mainly due to the military seizure was the source of violence and bloodshed. Only through the engagement with them can progress on halting violence be made,” said Chulalongkorn University’s Kavi. “After the Jakarta meeting, if the violence continues unabated as before without receding, ASEAN will not stand idly by.”

The NUG, which says it is the country’s legitimate interim authority, had requested an invitation to the ASEAN meeting in place of the junta leader. Though no such invitation was granted, a spokesperson for the group reportedly said that informal backchannel talks with ASEAN leaders were conducted prior to the summit without giving details.

“ASEAN moves step by step in an incremental manner. Issues related to the release of political prisoners will come sooner than later after the bloodshed stops,” Kavi added. “The NUG’s role [will be] important when the dialogue and reconciliation process begins. ASEAN will engage the NUG without fail as well as other stakeholders inside Myanmar.”

While some observers speculate that the watering down of the ASEAN chair’s statement was a compromise to secure the army chief’s agreement with the five consensus points, the accord also tellingly lacked an implementation timeline, a fact that Min Aung Hlaing’s junta appears already to be leveraging to buy time.

In an April 26 press release, the SAC’s information team said it would give “careful consideration” to the ASEAN leader’s suggestions that “[serve] the interests of the country,” but only when “the situation returns to stability in the country since priorities at the moment were to maintain law and order, and to restore community peace and tranquility.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the latest statement “gave away the real plot” in that the military junta “expects to keep kicking the can down the road, delaying long enough to buy the time it needs to crush protests by the Civil Disobedience Movement.”

“In the tug of the war between the people, represented by the CDM and the military, it’s clear the Tatmadaw think they have the stamina to last longer,” he added. “The military junta believe they can wait out the protesters amid a collapsing economy and growing fears of being targeted for violence or arrest.

“This shows the SAC’s strategy to continue ahead with its murderous crackdown while using the new ASEAN five points of consensus for propaganda, to demoralize the protesters in Myanmar, while also hiding behind ASEAN to stall further international pressure and sanctions against the junta and its business interests,” Robertson told Asia Times.

Myanmar protesters carry signs calling on ASEAN not to endorse the junta’s new election plan. Picture: APHR

ASEAN’s diplomatic initiatives are often viewed cynically by activists and observers who argue that institutional constraints due to the bloc’s consensus-based decision-making and policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of its members make the organization ill-suited to meaningfully respond to political and human rights crises.

While the United States and other Western countries have leveled unilateral economic sanctions against junta leaders and military-linked companies, ASEAN leaders oppose punitive measures that they say would only worsen conditions for the people of Myanmar, a stance some see as linked to their economic vested interests in the country.

In comparison to the rather limited economic influence that Western democracies have over Myanmar, some observers argue that sanctions by ASEAN countries would likely have a more effective impact. Myanmar’s six largest sources of foreign investment are countries in Asia, with Singapore holding the largest stake in the Southeast Asian nation.

It is not clear to observers whether ASEAN countries would individually contemplate the adoption of punitive measures against the ruling junta if bloodshed continues and the regional-led process fails to influence the situation, or whether continued intransigence by the military could lead ASEAN to more openly engage with or recognize the NUG.

Mahn Win Khaing Than, the NUG’s prime minister, issued a statement following the Jakarta summit that expressed appreciation for ASEAN’s efforts to assist Myanmar and its people, but voiced concern that engagement with the SAC could undermine the principle of constitutional government enshrined in the bloc’s charter.

The statement reiterated the NUG’s readiness to engage the regional bloc “in the constructive and inclusive manner that ASEAN envisages,” while calling for accountability mechanisms to monitor the SAC’s compliance with the five-point consensus and the unconditional release of political prisoners, including deposed elected leaders.

HRW’s Robertson said ASEAN cannot paper over the lack of an agreement to release thousands of political prisoners, “including senior political figures who presumably would be involved in any negotiated solution to the crisis.”

“Not only were the representatives of the Myanmar people not invited to the Jakarta meeting but they also got left out of the consensus that ASEAN is now patting itself on the back for reaching,” the rights advocate said.