April marked the first anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Five Point Consensus (5PC) on Myanmar. The consensus was negotiated by the nine member states and the perpetrator of the Feb. 1, 2021 military coup. It was designed to end the violence and set Myanmar back on a path toward reform. The plan called for an immediate end to violence, dialogue, humanitarian assistance, and an ASEAN Special Envoy appointment to facilitate the process. Sadly, for the people of Myanmar, a year of international lip-service to an ASEAN Consensus has seen a dramatic deterioration of conditions, with the frequency and intensity of the military’s war crimes increasing exponentially throughout the year.
For example, by August 2021, the military junta had completely wiped dozens of villages off the map by launching aerial strikes on communities in Chin, Sagaing, Karenni, and Karen states. In December 2021, it perpetrated a massacre on Christmas day in Karenni state, burning anti-junta forces to death in a horrific attack. In the first four months of 2022, the military deployed a wide range of paramilitary groups, including the “Blood Drinking Group” that has initiated targeted assassinations against public figures that are supportive of the deposed National League for Democracy Party or the National Unity Government (established by the beleaguered lawmakers following the military coup).
Meanwhile, the harsh military oppression has prompted more and more people to take up arms against military rule, causing a rapid militarization of Myanmar’s society and the complete collapse of any notion of the rule of law. In response, powerful ethnic armed organizations have mobilized either to gain a foothold on new territories — as the United Wa State Army has done in Shan State together with its allies — or have moved to enhance autonomy and expand their authority, as we see in Kachin, Karen, Chin, and Karenni states. As a result, the prospects of further state fragmentation are increasingly likely as these trends continue. Moreover, since the coup, it has become clear to Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations that the military has no legitimacy or capacity to rule and is not a trustworthy dialogue partner.
Can ASEAN members come together and stop the military junta’s violence against its people? Last month, Malaysia called for a new approach, arguing that the 5PC has failed to prevent violence, produce dialogue, and deliver humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, Cambodia doubled down on efforts to advance these three aspects of 5PC through high-level outreach to the military junta. While ASEAN states remain divided on approach, calls for a new direction are growing. However, three obstacles stand in the organization’s way: internal constraints, strong divisions among major powers, and the international community’s dangerous assumption that ASEAN centrality means that international efforts to address the crisis must be outsourced to ASEAN.
Under Brunei’s chairmanship in 2021, the 5PC was negotiated in Jakarta in April 2021 but a special envoy — the organization’s first — wasn’t designated till August 2021, months after negotiations. Before this appointment was formalized, the envoy visited Myanmar in June 2021 with the ASEAN General Secretary to discuss the 5PC with the military leadership. He later took a principled stand, refusing to make further visits without assurances that the military would provide access to all parties. The rest of this envoy’s tenure was spent on the humanitarian response, but these efforts were undermined again by the junta’s refusal to ensure humanitarian access. As a result, ASEAN Foreign Ministers decided to begin excluding the Myanmar military’s commander in chief from ASEAN Summit meetings.
While there have been numerous attempts to scale up the international community’s efforts, in the end, most have been thwarted by a very dangerous assumption: that ASEAN centrality means that the Myanmar crisis must be left to ASEAN to resolve.
As Cambodia took over the ASEAN chair at the end of 2021, Prime Minister Hun Sen immediately signaled his intent to take a new direction by visiting Myanmar in January 2022 and appointing his foreign minister as the new special envoy. With strong encouragement from China, Cambodia even explored the angle of attempting to build linkages between the junta’s own 5-point roadmap to restore what it terms “disciplined democracy” and the ASEAN 5PC. The Cambodian prime minister maintained regular exchanges with Min Aung Hlaing, while the special envoy visited Myanmar in March 2022.
These efforts have made it increasingly clear that no consensus ever existed within ASEAN on Myanmar. On the Myanmar side, the perpetrators of the 2021 coup see little value in association with the regional platform unless they can obtain legitimacy and recognition through it. The popular movement against the coup sees it as lacking consultation with the Myanmar people, the National Unity Government, and key ethnic armed organizations.
Meanwhile, in March 2022, just two weeks after the ASEAN special envoy’s visit, China emerged as the leading backer of the military’s State Administrative Council. China is motivated by its desire to rapidly reboot a strategic economic corridor that it sees as critical for the development and security of its southwestern provinces. This has already sparked new waves of anti-China sentiment in Myanmar, which will likely result in China doubling down in terms of its support for the junta regime to adopt more extreme tactics to suppress the Myanmar public. Banking on the West being distracted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China likely sees this as the best chance for the junta regime to consolidate its control — even if it means launching a scorched earth campaign against the public in villages and towns across the country.
While there have been numerous attempts to scale up the international community’s efforts, in the end, most have been thwarted by a very dangerous assumption: that ASEAN centrality means that the Myanmar crisis must be left to ASEAN to resolve. Of course, none of ASEAN’s international partners — China, United States, EU, Japan, India, Australia, or the UK question the importance of ASEAN centrality. But what exactly does this principle mean, especially when the Myanmar crisis spills far outside ASEAN to impact South Asia, China, the US, and countries as distant as the Gambia?
As the last year has shown, and as Hun Sen said, Myanmar’s political crisis is not a problem that ASEAN alone has the tools to resolve. So a first step in addressing the Myanmar crisis is to separate the crisis from the debate on ASEAN centrality. China is already signaling its intention to support one such approach, but this could cause a significant escalation in tensions and conflict. In April 2022, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi indicated that China would welcome the junta’s top diplomat, Wunna Maung Lwin, to host the Foreign Ministers Meeting of the China-led Lancang–Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Forum later this year in Myanmar.
The LMC consists of China and the mainland Southeast Asia countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, with China and Myanmar currently serving as the joint chairs. Since its establishment in 2015, the platform has focused mainly on economic connectivity, trade, and poverty reduction between the countries, forming working groups in each area. While ASEAN has resolved not to include the junta’s State Administrative Council in summits or Foreign Minister’s meetings, the countries of the LMC have indicated a willingness to engage the junta at this level. Leaning more heavily on the LMC to legitimize and work with Myanmar’s State Administrative Council is one way for China to advance its preference for supporting the military’s roadmap for “disciplined democracy.” Unfortunately, such an approach will serve to further aggravate popular frustration and concerns about external support for the military’s continued violence and oppression.
DEVELOPING A NEW APPROACH
While China’s moves with the LMC are leaning toward greater engagement with the junta regime, key ASEAN states like Malaysia and Indonesia are calling for a new approach that leans toward deeper engagement with the National Unity Government and pro-democracy stakeholders. States interested in supporting a future for the Myanmar people and ending the violence need to consider leveraging this opportunity. With divisions on the Myanmar question growing across the region and beyond, a much broader international initiative is needed to identify a long-term solution.
Reforms to the use of the veto at the UN Security Council may open up a pathway for advancing this approach. The General Assembly passed a resolution on Apr. 26, 2022, requiring the assembly to convene within ten days of the veto by any Security Council member. This meeting will offer member states a chance to scrutinize and comment on the use of the veto. However, such a move means that there will now be much higher reputational costs associated with the help of the veto by the Permanent-5 (US, UK, France, China, and Russia).
The US chairing the Security Council in May 2022 offers a new opportunity for concerned states to act. The US and ASEAN members can use the UN to press for an arms embargo on the junta regime, urging states that continue to sell arms to stop. Other actions include demanding that Min Aung Hlaing’s armed forces stop all operations immediately and requiring that all of the 10,000 plus political prisoners were taken since the 2021 coup, including the civilian leaders, are immediately released.
The UN Special Envoy — who continues to search for openings to address the conflict — could support this initiative. For example, the envoy can convene a group of concerned countries to monitor the UN’s progress. This group might include key ASEAN member states looking to find new ways to address the military’s ongoing attack on the country’s people and institutions. Meanwhile, the same group of friends can also begin engaging with the National Unity Consultative Council toward identifying a longer-term solution to the political crisis — including looking at how to facilitate the return of Myanmar’s military to the barracks.
The clock is now ticking. As the military continues to deploy crushing violence, society continues to militarize and the number of people on the brink of starvation grows.
Jason Tower directs the Myanmar Program at the United States Institute of Peace.