Myanmar's anti-junta protesters have not appreciated ASEAN's role in the crisis. Photo: Twitter

Could it have finally been the beginning of the end of the so-called “five-point consensus”, a loose concord between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc and Myanmar’s military junta that aims broadly to restore stability to the conflict-ridden nation?

Last week, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah admitted in an almost off-hand remark that he had been in contact with Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow government set up by toppled elected politicians and pro-democracy campaigners opposed to the military’s February 2021 coup. 

It was the first time that an ASEAN leader had admitted to such contacts. Days later, Saifuddin said he will propose that ASEAN establishes an informal relationship with the shadow government. The reason, he said, was because there has been “no progress” on the five-point consensus. 

That’s putting the lack of implementation mildly. The “5PC”, as it’s less cumbersomely known, has been controversial since it was first announced on April 24 last year. Despite the first “point” being an immediate end to violence in the country, military forces killed at least six civilians in the days immediately after it was signed. Hundreds more have been killed since.

Neither have the other four “points” panned out. The junta refuses to enter into dialogue with the NUG, which it claims to be a terrorist group. Special ASEAN envoys have been appointed (another of the “points”) although they have been the foreign ministers of Brunei and Cambodia, the ASEAN chairs in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

This means they are neither independent nor accountable to the bloc itself, and instead reflect the whims of their own country’s governments. Neither have they been allowed to meet with any party or individuals they wish in Myanmar, another unimplemented consensus “point.” 

This leaves the 5PC as an inverse of Schrödinger’s cat: It exists and doesn’t exist at the same time, although, unlike for Schrödinger, everyone can easily see this duality. As a result, many pundits say ASEAN should move past the 5PC, admit it hasn’t worked, and try a new tack.

By Malaysia becoming the first regional government to openly admit engaging with the NUG, it could have opened a new direction of ASEAN – though it still seems far from certain that the rest of the bloc will want to parlay, even informally, with Myanmar’s shadow government. ASEAN has barred the junta from participating in the bloc’s annual meetings, but it hasn’t so far offered any pathway in for the NUG. 

Anti-coup protesters show their support for Myanmar’s National Unity Government. Photo: Jose Lopes Amaral / NurPhoto via AFP

Hunter Marston, a researcher on Southeast Asia at the Australian National University, is skeptical about whether Malaysia’s proposal is the beginning of the end of the 5PC. Saifuddin, the foreign minister, couched his proposal with reference to the 5PC. Indeed, his call for doubling humanitarian aid to Myanmar is consistent with the consensus, though it’s the only point that has been remotely implemented.

Yet it’s also worth considering why ASEAN remains wedded to the concept. The bloc is sticking to the 5PC “because they have nothing better to come up with, and they don’t want to impose harsher punishments on Myanmar or come up with something with real bite in it,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

It also suits outside powers. Washington and Brussels still say they trust the ASEAN-led response, which has allowed them to take a backseat in dealing with the crisis. There’s now even less interest in Western capitals to intervene in Myanmar since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, which has pushed the Myanmar crisis down the Western world’s list of concerns.

Although Beijing has recently shown more willingness to work with the junta, it still doesn’t want to take sides in the war, wary that its influence and interests could suffer if the junta loses and the ousted National League for Democracy is returned to power.

But if ASEAN was to renounce the 5PC, it would not only be an admission of failure, something the bloc has seldom done. It could also compel outside powers to rethink their own policies and launch more interventionist initiatives.

There’s a psychological element as well. ASEAN often trumpets its important role in world affairs but seldom shows the grit and competence to back the claim. The Myanmar crisis, perversely, gifted ASEAN with an opportunity to show this, even though the bloc has a scant history of resolving regional problems, not least because of his guiding principle of “non-interference” in other members’ internal affairs.

Much has been made of how the likes of Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia assisted in ending the civil war in Cambodia, though this is often exaggerated in retrospect. It was largely down to the end of the Cold War, as the US, Soviet Union and China stopped scrapping over a proxy that allowed peace to return to Cambodia. 

ASEAN is quite attached to the 5PC because it came at a high cost and was not easily concluded, said Marston. “Were it to scrap the plan now,” he added, “it would represent a major failure for ASEAN to live up to its own standards and expose how ineffectual it is when it comes to collective action.”

He went on: “Rhetorical support for the 5PC allows ASEAN states to insist that they are still working toward a diplomatic solution in their own way, even if that is just a hollow talking point now.”

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has run circles around ASEAN. Photo: AFP / Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency

Equally important, the 5PC is one of the few things that the bloc has agreed upon. The Myanmar crisis has already sorely tested its resolve. Brunei, as ASEAN chair last year, made the brave decision of disinviting the junta chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, from the bloc’s annual summit, which wasn’t popular with all member states.

But things were thrown into turmoil in January when Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, this year’s ASEAN chair, decided he would visit Naypyidaw to sit down with the coup-maker general. Other bloc members were appalled that Hun Sen didn’t consult with them beforehand.

Malaysia reportedly threatened to boycott a Foreign Ministers’ retreat in Phnom Penh, leading to its postponement. Hun Sen has since backtracked, yet another diversion away from the 5PC will no doubt stir more intra-block disunity and dissent.

“ASEAN’s biggest limitation is its structural constraints. It lacks punitive power to compel the junta to take the necessary steps to restore democracy,” says Rahul Mishra,  a senior lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya. “ASEAN’s faith in the 5PC is based on the fact that it is the best that the regional grouping has to offer.” 

Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno