Milk Tea Alliance Indonesia in action during Solidarity for the Myanmar People in front of the ASEAN Secretariat building in Jakarta on March 12,2021. Photo: DasrilRoszandi / NurPhoto via AFP

SINGAPORE – When Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders meet in Jakarta to discuss the worsening political crisis in Myanmar on April 24, it will mark the first time that the regional organization holds a highest-level meeting to address a specific situation of concern involving one of its members.  

Non-interference in domestic affairs has traditionally been one of ASEAN’s basic operating principles, along with decision-making by consensus. As such, Saturday’s summit is seen as a test of the grouping’s code of constraint as regional leaders find themselves under mounting pressure to engineer a workable, face-saving resolution before the crisis spirals further out of control.

To be sure, the situation in Myanmar is on a knife’s edge. Its ruling military junta has intensified a brutal campaign of suppression in defiance of world condemnation. The cycle of protests and bloody crackdowns has left at least 738 people dead, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) monitoring group.

Inflexible repression by the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, has pushed segments of the urban-based protest movement into using low-level guerrilla warfare tactics, while escalating hostilities with ethnic armed forces in the north and east threaten a wider war on multiple fronts in the country’s borderlands.

The fear within ASEAN is that the worst is yet to come. As the region copes with a resurgent Covid-19 pandemic that continues to thwart broad-based economic recovery, the bloc faces the prospect of Myanmar’s civil strife escalating into a protracted Syria-like civil war and a humanitarian emergency that sends huge numbers of refugees over its borders.

The threat of a failed state emerging within mainland Southeast Asia has added impetus and imperative to ASEAN’s diplomacy. Should the regional grouping fail to act meaningfully, analysts say outside powers including the United States and China could be compelled to intervene, raising the possibility of Myanmar becoming a proxy theater for great power contestation.

Saturday’s meeting is expected to set the parameters for ASEAN taking on a mediating role in the crisis. “ASEAN will engage with all parties in Myanmar, but under what conditions will be made clearer at the summit this coming weekend,” said Alistair D B Cook, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Following weeks of planning, the talks are seen as primarily aimed at seeking de-escalation and establishing conditions for dialogue between Myanmar’s military and the ousted civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), whose leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior figures remain in detention.

However, it’s not clear that a negotiated settlement would be acceptable to either side at this stage, with neither camp apparently willing to accept a compromise or return to the status quo ante. The Tatmadaw has shown no willingness to talk to members of the elected government it ousted, having ratcheted up its brutality despite appeals from its neighbors to refrain from violence.

At least seven ASEAN leaders are expected to attend the summit in Indonesia’s capital, with Thailand and the Philippines opting to send their foreign ministers. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of the junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) and architect of the February 1 coup d’etat, is expected to travel to Jakarta to participate in the face-to-face meeting.

“The fact that there will be an ASEAN summit meeting on the crisis and that General Min Aung Hlaing will attend it is an important but only tentative step forward,” said Choi Shing Kwok, director of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore and head of its ASEAN Studies Centre.

“I expect ASEAN leaders to focus first on convincing Min Aung Hlaing to take a few short-term steps, including curtailing the violence against unarmed civilian protesters and exercising restraint in its dealings with its opponents,” he said. “Without such a break in the escalation in violence, no reconciliation of the political forces within the country is possible.”

Critics of the military takeover have condemned the general’s planned attendance at the summit, with some observers viewing the invitation to sit alongside other ASEAN leaders as tantamount to lending legitimacy to his regime’s democracy-suspending putsch, particularly in light of the recent establishment of a parallel authority by pro-democracy forces.

“The invitation to Min Aung Hlaing must be handled with extreme caution, and ASEAN must make it abundantly clear that he is not there as a representative of the Myanmar people, who totally reject his barbaric junta,” said Charles Santiago, chairperson of advocacy group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

Deposed members of Parliament, leaders of anti-coup protests and ethnic minority organizations announced on April 16 a National Unity Government (NUG), which says it is the country’s legitimate interim authority and has requested international recognition and an invitation to the ASEAN meeting in place of the junta leader.

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has vast economic resources at his disposal. Photo: AFP/Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency

Figures associated with the NUG, which previously referred to itself as the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), have said they were not consulted over the planned summit. Some regional foreign ministers and officials are known to have held back channel talks with Myanmar’s ousted lawmakers since the coup, however.

“ASEAN cannot adequately discuss the situation in Myanmar without hearing from and speaking to the National Unity Government. If ASEAN’s purpose really is to strengthen democracy, as stated by its Charter, they must give them a seat at the table,” said Santiago in a statement. “After all, they are the embodiment of democracy in Myanmar.”

Analysts expect ASEAN’s diplomats to continue their quiet diplomatic outreach with the NUG in the weeks ahead, but some say that the Tatmadaw’s leader may have refused to attend the regional summit if representatives of the parallel authority, which the junta regards as treasonous and unlawful, were also in attendance.

“The call by the CRPH for ASEAN not to meet with MAH [Min Aung Hlaing] is an attempt to gain the diplomatic upper hand over the SAC, but acceding to it will be tantamount to an abandonment of any meaningful role by ASEAN,” said Choi, echoing the view that any practical de-escalation of the situation requires direct engagement with the military’s leader.

“The formation of a NUG is still in its early stages and it remains to be seen if the other opposition forces in the country will accept it as the legitimate political authority. Should it be able to establish this in due course, ASEAN will certainly have to take its views and participation into account in any future reconciliation process,” Choi added.

Proposals being considered for the summit reportedly include a humanitarian aid mission that would entail a pause in hostilities and delivery of medical supplies needed to counter Covid-19 as well as food aid. The appointment of a special envoy who would negotiate with the military junta and members of the deposed elected government is also reportedly under consideration.  

Naypyidaw has thus far refused to allow the United Nation’s special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, to visit the country. Burgener will reportedly be in Jakarta to engage ASEAN leaders on the sidelines of Saturday’s summit.

While still regarded as the best hope for a diplomatic solution, the 10-member grouping’s record in tackling regional human rights crises has been abysmal. ASEAN states are already clearly divided on Myanmar’s crisis, with some of its members describing the junta’s bloody consolidation of power as an “internal matter.”

Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and, more recently, the Philippines have censured the junta in uncharacteristically strong terms and called for the release of Suu Kyi and other political detainees, a step that the bloc itself has eschewed. 

A protester holds an image of the detained Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration condemning the military coup outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok on February 4, 2021, days after Myanmar’s security forces detained Suu Kyi and the country’s president. Photo: AFP / Mladen Antonov

Others have taken a more ambiguous position. Thailand, which shares a porous border with Myanmar and clearly fears a fresh influx of refugees, hasn’t openly criticized the coup but has tellingly said it is “gravely concerned” about escalating bloodshed and has more recently called for dialogue between the Tatmadaw and NLD.

Hunter Marston, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, said he anticipates that the summit will expose rifts within ASEAN on democratic and autocratic lines. “I do not expect a univocal response strong enough to convince Min Aung Hlaing that his regime has gone too far and will be held to account.”

By ignoring the NUG’s entreaty to attend the summit, ASEAN has put itself in the awkward position of “effectively treating Min Aung Hlaing as the representative of Myanmar’s government even as certain members call for the release of elected leaders and a return to democracy in the country,” he added.

Marston said some ASEAN states at least appeared reluctant to recognize the senior general as the legitimate leader of Myanmar. The Canberra-based academic said outside powers such as the United States, the European Union and others could soon opt to extend diplomatic recognition to the NUG, but aren’t ready to do so yet.

The NUG aims to establish a federal democratic system, but isn’t yet materially able to support a nationwide parallel administration. Outside powers are thus “waiting to see how much of a following [the NUG] have, what resources they’re able to command, and whether they can effectively claim to govern Myanmar given the current state of chaos,” said Marston.

Elina Noor, director for political-security affairs and deputy director at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington DC, said there will be pressures on, but also an inclination by, Western liberal democracies, in particular, to recognize the NUG as Myanmar’s legitimate government, which could allow it to access country funds now punitively frozen in overseas banking systems.

The US, for one, is now holding over US$1 billion worth of Myanmar state funds.

“If this happens, ASEAN will be in an even more difficult position since the UN and ASEAN’s own dialogue partners have all expressed support for the grouping’s key role in this crisis. ASEAN centrality will be further questioned if a split on recognition happens in the international community,” she told Asia Times.

ASEAN centrality refers to the notion that the regional grouping and its associated mechanisms should serve as the core institutional platform through which disputes are managed and wider diplomacy with outside powers is advanced. That centrality, observers argue, risks being undermined by ASEAN’s inability to manage affairs within its region.

“If the violence can be stopped and some interim mechanism of dialogue can be agreed upon involving the NUG, then ASEAN can help play a constructive, bridging role in charting a more sustainable roadmap ahead for Myanmar,” Noor said.

A sign is pictured next to flowers as Myanmar migrants living in Thailand take part in a demonstration remembering protesters killed while rallying against the military coup in their home country, and calling for the results of the 2020 Myanmar election to be upheld, outside the Indonesian embassy in Bangkok, February 23, 2021. Photo by Jack Taylor/AFP

In a recent op-ed published by the Jakarta Post, Noor said that while ASEAN must deal with the military junta as the de facto party in power in order to realistically address the situation, Myanmar’s suspension from ASEAN should be a consideration, particularly if the regime remains intransigent and rebuffs regional efforts to reach a solution.

While suspending Myanmar from the bloc at a time of worsening violence could seem unconstructive and cause ASEAN to lose its leverage with the junta, Noor said Southeast Asian governments could be better off continuing their engagement with the Tatmadaw outside rather than within the ASEAN framework.

“The solution may be to unshackle ASEAN member states from the constraining formalities of organizational bureaucracy while still working closely behind the scenes plurilaterally, as is effectively the case now,” she said.

Noor added that engagement, rather than isolation, would in any case help to affirm ASEAN centrality and stave off external interventions.

“If Myanmar teeters on the brink of civil war or if there is protracted bloodshed, there is a risk external powers will feel compelled to intervene and not completely for altruistic reasons, either,” she said. “This would be a worst-case scenario, in which major powers would carve out spheres and territories of influence in Myanmar as well as in the region.

“That is why it is imperative for ASEAN to set the stage this weekend by demonstrating effectiveness, even if it’s just to stop the ongoing violence so that mediation can begin. It won’t be enough for the people of Myanmar who voted in a different government, but it will be a necessary precondition for some kind of change on the ground.”

Should the crisis in Myanmar escalate and ASEAN’s attempt to broker a solution falter, analysts believe it is possible that the case for external military intervention, potentially in the form of missile strikes against military targets, could be seriously considered by Washington and its allies in a bid to pressure Naypyidaw to the negotiating table.

The possibility of such an escalation is still seen as remote given that Washington has so far been broadly content to leave the crisis to ASEAN. The situation in Myanmar, moreover, isn’t deemed as being of critical strategic importance to the US, and military intervention would almost certainly spark divisions among the Washington-led Quad alliance.

“The appetite for and effectiveness of foreign military intervention by the major powers is very much in question today,” said ISEAS’ director Choi. “With the Tatmadaw being fiercely independent and having the option to play one major power off against another, it is highly questionable what kind of effective intervention any power could mount.”

Myanmar soldiers patrol during a demonstration against the military coup outside the Central Bank in Yangon, Myanmar on February 15, 2021. (Photo by Myat Thu Kyaw/NurPhoto)

ASEAN’s approach, “whatever it may be called, therefore remains an attractive option for the international community to rally behind, though its ability to deliver is not guaranteed,” Choi added.

He expects “only modest progress” at the weekend’s summit, with the main aim being to persuade Min Aung Hlaing to accept a process towards a mediated reconciliation, which could also include the involvement of other international stakeholders.

“The situation in Myanmar is at a point where it could get a lot worse before it gets better,” Choi lamented. “ASEAN’s record in the past has been to continue engaging rather than to close doors when there is still hope for improvement. Having said that, the situation is so open-ended that I believe anything is possible and nothing can be ruled out.”