Leaders of ASEAN countries attend a meeting to discuss the Myanmar crisis, at the ASEAN Secretariat Building, Jakarta, on April 24, 2021. Photo: Indonesian Presidential Secretariat / Anadolu Agency via AFP

The five-point consensus on Myanmar reached at a special leaders’ summit in Jakarta last Saturday outlined solid steps that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will take to defuse the worsening crisis in that country.

It signaled a strong commitment to play a decisive role in preventing further violence and fostering dialogue between key domestic actors in a troubled member state. It shows how the 54-year-old regional bloc is stepping up to forestall a broader civil war and humanitarian tragedy that could spill over the region. 

The consensus suggests a shared recognition of how grave the situation is in Myanmar and how the failure of ASEAN to intercede could invite the intervention of great powers, which would undermine ASEAN centrality and weaken regional cohesion.

Recognizing the high stakes involved and the gravitas that informal ASEAN leader and middle power Indonesia wields, Brunei, this year’s ASEAN chair, gave way for Jakarta to host the emergency meeting.

The gathering was the first in-person leaders’ summit convened since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. This shows the high degree of importance attached by the region to the deteriorating flashpoint. 

The consensus was the culmination of formal and informal talks and consultations done by key ASEAN members, notably Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, with significant domestic actors in Myanmar and influential regional players like China. 

The 10-member organization called for an urgent halt to violence and for all parties to exercise utmost restraint. This appeal could help dial down tensions that have been building up as the military and protesters dig in, a parallel “national unity government” is shaping up to challenge the Tatmadaw, and ethnic separatist groups siding with the growing civilian opposition to junta rule.

A halt in violence could pave the way for the delivery of humanitarian goods, including food and medicine, and also create necessary conditions for talks. The regional bloc pledged to deliver humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management. 

ASEAN also called for a constructive dialogue in pursuit of a peaceful solution to the conflict. To this end, it will dispatch a special envoy to facilitate mediation with the assistance of the organization’s secretary general.

This is ASEAN stressing its central role in its neighborhood, offering its good offices to a member in distress and a coordinating venue for the international community to vent their concerns and channel support to the dialogue process. 

The ASEAN envoy and delegation will visit Myanmar and meet with all concerned parties. This belies notions that ASEAN recognized the coup’s legitimacy by inviting Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to the meeting. Acknowledging the situation on the ground and conferring legitimacy are two different things.

In keeping with its time-honored principle, the organization is not taking sides in the conflict, is in touch with all relevant parties and wishes to see inclusive and productive talks run and owned by Myanmar. 

The five-point consensus could not come at a more critical time. The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, is feeling the heat of escalating sanctions and worries that even Southeast Asian neighbors may withhold cooperation if the situation does not improve. ASEAN, on the other hand, has come under fire for not doing much to stem the carnage or condemn the illegitimate power grab in one of its member states.

With all eyes on the meeting and its outcome, ASEAN delivered substantive ways forward. 

Despite the varying interests and priority assigned to the issue by its 10 individual members, ASEAN has come together to make a collective stand. The consensus reached outlines how the bloc envisages its role in the Myanmar conundrum. It aims to address pressing needs – cessation of violence, restraint and humanitarian aid – as well as chart a durable solution to the impasse through dialogue.

While it is too early to see how things will pan out, the consensus, in itself, represents a big step and vindicates the resources and time expended to make it happen. 

Lucio B Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He writes on Asian security and connectivity issues.