Protesters against Myanmar's junta burn the flag of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Mandalay, June 5, 2021. Photo: Agencies

SINGAPORE – Fire and flames ate away at the flag of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during heated protests on the streets of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, last weekend after two emissaries from the regional organization met with junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

ASEAN chairman Lim Jock Hoi and Brunei’s Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Erywan Pehin Yusof visited Naypyitaw on June 4 to discuss the appointment of the grouping’s special envoy and delivery of humanitarian aid, but departed amid questions of whether the Bruneian diplomats had inadvertently legitimized Myanmar’s military regime.

By Tuesday (June 8) morning, a statement on the visit was removed from the ASEAN secretariat’s website after it had referred to the senior general and chief architect of February’s coup as the “Chairman of the State Administrative Council” (SAC) – in other words, the leader of the country rather than the leader of the armed forces.

The diplomatic gaffe, coupled with the slow pace of progress on implementing the five-point consensus reached by ASEAN leaders at an April 24 meeting in Jakarta, has sown fury among opponents of the military takeover in Myanmar and fueled rising criticism among the region’s commentariat of Brunei’s management of the crisis as ASEAN’s chair.

“Beyond the complexities of engaging Myanmar right now, for the time being, the biggest challenge is just engaging the chair,” said Evan Laksmana, a political scientist and senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Indonesia, who added that Brunei has been regarded as “particularly difficult to work with.”

The wealthy sultanate has “stonewalled” Indonesia’s efforts to increase pressure on Myanmar’s military rulers, claimed Laksmana, who accused Brunei of favoring a bureaucratic approach to decision-making and dragging its feet over the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy, which he described as “absolutely paramount.”

ASEAN leaders, including Myanmar’s army chief, agreed by consensus to the appointment of a special envoy entitled to “meet with all parties concerned” at April’s meeting in the Indonesian capital. But the regional grouping has been unable to agree on a candidate, who would formally represent the chair and be appointed by Brunei.

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

A source with knowledge of the matter confirmed to Asia Times that Indonesia and Thailand have put forward specific names for consideration, which Brunei’s emissaries presented to the junta chief and “sought approval” for, an approach that apparently did not sit well with diplomats from other ASEAN countries including Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

“To get approval for an envoy is shocking. It’s supposed to be ASEAN’s decision. Brunei was supposed to have this decision because it’s the chair,” said the source, who requested anonymity. “None of these diplomats are saying anything, and of course when you say nothing in the context of Brunei, that means you can’t say anything, which means that it seems to have come from the top.”

Ahead of the Bruneian diplomats’ visit to Myanmar, Reuters reported that Indonesia, which has been at the forefront of ASEAN’s bid to de-escalate the political crisis, and Thailand, whose military has close ties to neighboring Myanmar, were “at loggerheads” over who should be appointed special envoy and the scope of the position’s duties.

Bangkok has reportedly lobbied for the appointment of a body of multiple representatives, while Jakarta initially favored a single envoy to lead a task force. Sources told the publication that most ASEAN states were prepared to compromise by supporting a grouping of three envoys representing Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei.

Brunei had also issued a “concept paper” that, according to Reuters, proposed limiting the envoy’s job to mediating, not basing them in Myanmar, and giving them a small staff paid for by the home country of the envoy, conditions that other ASEAN states ultimately deemed as undermining the stature and leverage of the yet to be appointed envoy.

Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute, said that while Brunei has managed its chairmanship “with a certain degree of organized efficiency,” the Borneo-based sultanate ultimately lacks the diplomatic experience and gravitas to effect change within the region.

“We are in a situation where ASEAN would be a difficult organization to manage irrespective of who the leader would be given that there are very clear, very distinct differences within ASEAN on how to deal with this regime,” said Welsh. “I think it has become increasingly clear that there is no real consensus within ASEAN.”

From the onset of the February coup that deposed the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government of Aung San Suu Kyi, ASEAN members have failed to speak with one voice, with authoritarian states in the bloc preferring to describe the putsch as an internal matter.

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

Observers say Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia have held closely to ASEAN’s tradition of non-interference in members’ domestic affairs and lean toward recognition of the junta, while Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have been much more vocal in their criticism of the junta’s bloody crackdown and calls for a return to democracy.

Despite calls by individual member states for the release of Suu Kyi and others who remain in the junta’s custody, ASEAN was unable to include the release of political prisoners as one of its “consensus” points at the April 24 leaders’ meeting, likely to avoid opposition from Naypyitaw and a collapse of negotiations.

ASEAN’s lack of consensus has held back international pressure in other ways, most notably with the organization’s position on removing a call for an arms embargo on Myanmar from a United Nations General Assembly draft resolution proposed by Lichtenstein in an apparent bid to ensure unanimous support from the 193-member body.

Nine ASEAN countries – all except Myanmar, which has dismissed its UN ambassador for opposing the coup – called for a watering down of the non-binding resolution in a letter to its author last month. But according to a Reuters report, several ASEAN members were, in fact, comfortable with the inclusion of a weapons freeze.

Citing unnamed sources, Reuters said resistance to the proposed arms embargo had been pushed by Thailand and Singapore and had led to ASEAN requesting the clause be removed. A scheduled vote on the resolution that was slated to be held on May 18 was postponed and a new date for the vote has not been set.

“The need for consensus decision-making leaves ASEAN incapable of confronting sensitive political or security matters, particularly involving the internal politics of a member, in a timely manner,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC.

“The problem is not unique to Brunei; it is the institutional weakness of ASEAN,” he added. “In any case, ASEAN is stuck in a debate over the name of an envoy that none of the parties in Myanmar are interested in meeting with anymore. The crisis has moved on and ASEAN has ensured that all sides within Myanmar see the organization as irrelevant.”

Following the recent meeting in Naypyitaw, Moe Zaw Oo, who is deputy foreign minister for the National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel civilian administration formed in April by deposed elected lawmakers and opponents of the coup, said that pro-democracy forces in the country have “little confidence” in an ASEAN-led mediation process.

The NUG, which claims to be the country’s legitimate interim authority, was denied a request for an invitation to April’s meeting in Jakarta in place of the junta leader, whose attendance was seen by critics and observers as conferring his legitimacy. Representatives of the shadow government have yet to be formally engaged by ASEAN.

Myanmar supporters of the National Unity Government the junta regime has declared a ‘terrorist’ organization. Image: Maxime Gruss / Hans Lucas via AFP

“There has been inadequate engagement with the NUG among ASEAN players,” said Welsh. “This is something that has to happen because if they don’t engage with NUG, they will end up having a country inside of Southeast Asia that will hate this regional organization, as the majority of people in Myanmar are really now targeting criticism towards ASEAN.”

While the five-point consensus was initially seen as a sign of modest progress, the military junta almost immediately prevaricated on its commitments to implement what was agreed. Two days after the Jakarta summit, the ruling SAC said in a statement it would only act on the ASEAN agreement when the situation in the country “returns to stability.”

On May 7, a military spokesman reiterated that “only after we achieve a certain level of security and stability, we will cooperate regarding that envoy.” But far from stabilizing, the security situation in Myanmar has continued to slide toward full-blown civil war amid criticism that ASEAN’s ongoing delay in appointing a special envoy to Myanmar is claiming lives.

“Issue by issue, ASEAN shows problems within, the largest of which is that they cannot even agree on a special envoy,” Welsh added. “Every day that there isn’t a special envoy, every day that the Myanmar military basically shows the regional organization was played out easily is a day where ASEAN’s credibility on everything it does is being undermined.”

In May, the NUG announced a People’s Defense Force (PDF) it claimed would be a precursor to a “federal union army” in a sign of growing national-level armed resistance. Fighting has since flared in several parts of the country as various ethnic armed organizations and newly formed militias take aim at the junta.

Violence in the country has not abated since the summit in Jakarta, though the number of reported casualties killed by security forces has fallen compared to March and April. At least 860 people have died and more than 4,800 remain jailed, according to the local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

With patience wearing thin and ASEAN’s de-escalation strategy having hit a wall amid an upsurge of bombings and shootings targeting security forces around Yangon, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi publicly appealed for help from China when ASEAN foreign ministers met their Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Chongqing on June 7.

In a rare call for Beijing to assert leadership by using its leverage with Myanmar’s junta, Marsudi said China’s support to “follow up on the five points of consensus will be highly appreciated because this will contribute to efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis.” She added that ASEAN’s task is to implement the consensus “immediately.”

China’s President Xi Jinping and Myanmar coup-maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in a file photo. Image: Twitter

As a key supplier of military equipment and strategic investments, Beijing wields big influence in Naypyitaw. China had carefully cultivated a diplomatic relationship with Suu Kyi during her tenure as state counselor and was among the first countries to congratulate her landslide victory in the November 2020 elections. The junta asserts the elections were fraudulent, an unsubstantiated claim the generals have advanced to justify the coup.

But following the military’s takeover, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency described the putsch that toppled Suu Kyi’s government as a mere “cabinet reshuffle.” Anti-China sentiments have since hit fever-pitch in Myanmar, fuelled by Beijing’s unwillingness to condemn the military crackdown and mounting perceptions that it has sided with the junta.

The Chinese embassy in Myanmar voiced hope for “the restoration of peace and stability” in a June 5 statement that controversially referred to the junta chief as “the leader of Myanmar.” According to the statement, Min Aung Hlaing told Chinese ambassador Chen Hai that he was willing to work with ASEAN on implementing the five-point consensus.

“China and all other ASEAN dialogue partners, including the United States, will continue to voice theoretical support for the five-point consensus as a way to signal their support for ASEAN. That is a matter of polite diplomacy. But Beijing is surely as aware as everyone else that the five-point consensus is already irrelevant,” said Washington-based Poling.

“If China can be convinced to support a process within Myanmar, it will be by getting the ethnic armed groups along its border to engage in a future dialogue with the NUG and SAC if the escalating violence eventually forces the junta to the table. But that point is months away and will be unlikely to involve ASEAN as more than an afterthought,” he added.

Bejing will ultimately “play ball with whoever’s in power,” according to academic Welsh.  That, she says, owes to China’s deep strategic interests in Myanmar, which provides China with mineral and natural gas resources and land access to the Indian Ocean via critical infrastructure projects supporting connectivity between the two neighbors.

“I think it’s pretty clear that China is looking out for China, and has become an advocate for the Myanmar regime, if not explicitly, then very quietly,” she said. “The reality is that China is pushing towards recognition internationally and is putting a lot of pressure on ASEAN members. And keep in mind, it puts pressure on Brunei as well.”

Prime Minister of Darussalam Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah arrives at the ASEAN secretariat to attend the ASEAN Summit on the Myanmar crisis in Jakarta, Indonesia on April 24, 2021. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Secretariat of the President of Indonesia

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said that with Brunei serving both as ASEAN’s chair and its secretary-general, “the onus is on the sultanate to coordinate closely and share decision-making with other member states” that are more critical of the junta.

Apart from a lack of transparency in managing the Myanmar crisis, Bandar Seri Begawan has been “deferential and courteous to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at the expense of ASEAN leverage… taking more of an appeasement line toed by the other ASEAN members, such as Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and even Thailand,” said the Thai academic.

“Clearly, the Myanmar crisis is also ASEAN’s existential crisis about what kind of organization it is with such a wide spectrum of democratic and autocratic regimes,” Thitinan opined.

“Giving too much space and recognition to the junta undermines the parallel NUG that draws its legitimacy from elections last November and betrays the pro-democracy movement inside the country,” he told Asia Times. “No wonder ASEAN is being cursed in households across Myanmar.”