US: ASEAN Needs to Act Now on Myanmar

Shailaja Neelakantan and Ahmad Syamsudin
Washington and Jakarta
US: ASEAN Needs to Act Now on Myanmar United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a virtual meeting with foreign ministers from member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, July 13, 2021.
[Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia via Twitter]

The United States has said it is imperative for ASEAN to speed up its plan for initiating dialogue and reducing violence in Myanmar, now that the Burmese junta leader has appointed himself prime minister and announced that elections will not take place until 2023.

At the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting scheduled for Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will impress upon the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that it needs to name and send an envoy to Myanmar, as the bloc’s members had agreed to in April, a senior State Department official said.

Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing’s announcement on Sunday is “a call for ASEAN to have to step up its efforts, because it’s clear that the Burmese junta is just stalling for time and wants to keep prolonging the calendar to its own advantage,” the official told a briefing for reporters in Washington late Monday. The official was one of two senior State Department officials who briefed reporters on condition that their names not be used.

“So all the more reason why ASEAN has to engage on this and live up and uphold the terms of the Five-Point Consensus that Myanmar also signed up to.”

Blinken will attend various ASEAN meetings this week, during which he will go “deep into the details in understanding the complex issues” in Southeast Asia, the State Department official said.

Of these meetings, the ASEAN Regional Forum is the largest one and it focuses on regional security issues “not the least of which is the coup in Burma, which has impacted all of ASEAN and threatens the stability of the entire region,” the official said.  

“[Blinken] will urge ASEAN to hold the Burma military junta accountable to the April 24 ASEAN Leaders’ Five-Point Consensus to name and send its special envoy to Burma to engage all stakeholders and for the junta to immediately end the violence, restore democratic governance, and release those unjustly detained,” the official said.

As of Tuesday, 950 Burmese – most of them anti-coup protesters – had been killed by Myanmar security forces since the military toppled an elected government on Feb. 1.

In late April, ASEAN leaders convened in Jakarta for a special meeting on the crisis in post-coup Myanmar. The leaders – including Min Aung Hlaing – met in person. They all agreed on five points to be implemented as soon as possible to stem the violence and begin the process of returning Myanmar to normalcy.

ASEAN leaders agreed to appoint a special envoy to Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties and mediation of such talks by an ASEAN special envoy, as they called for an end to violence.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi talks to journalists during a virtual press conference in Washington, Monday, Aug 2, 2021. [Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP]

Time for ‘firm decision’ from ASEAN

Six months later, none of these points from the consensus have come to fruition and some ASEAN members have expressed frustration at the impasse.

Retno Marsudi, the foreign minister of Indonesia – a founding member of the 54-year-old bloc – said Monday that “the delay of implementation of the five points of consensus would not bring anything positive to ASEAN.”

“It’s time for ASEAN to take a firm decision,” Retno told a virtual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers.

“Indonesia hopes that this … meeting can decide on the appointment of the special envoy according to ASEAN’s proposal along with its clear mandate and the Myanmar military’s commitment to providing full access to the envoy to carry out its duties.”

Retno also indicated that Myanmar’s junta may be delaying the naming of an ASEAN envoy.

“Indonesia hopes that Myanmar will immediately approve ASEAN’s proposal for the appointment of a Special Envoy,” Retno said.

As of Tuesday afternoon (Washington time), ASEAN had yet to issue a joint statement on the meeting. According to sources in Jakarta’s diplomatic corridors, Myanmar had not approved the person that ASEAN had suggested for the special ambassadorship.

Myanmar has to approve an ASEAN emissary because the 10-member bloc takes decisions by consensus.

For his part, Min Aung Hlaing said on Sunday – the six-month anniversary of the coup – that of three envoy nominees ASEAN had presented, he picked a former Thai minister, but no further progress was made because the bloc then proposed new names.

“Of the three original nominees for the ASEAN special envoy, we agreed to select the former Deputy Foreign Minister of Thailand, Mr. Virasakdi Futrakul. But for various reasons, the new proposals were released and we could not keep moving onwards,” the junta leader said, according to a transcript of his speech published in state-run publication The Global New Light of Myanmar.

“I would like to say that Myanmar is ready to work on ASEAN cooperation within the ASEAN framework, including the dialogue with the ASEAN Special Envoy in Myanmar.”

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has close ties with the Burmese military. Prayuth chose Myanmar as the first foreign country to visit after he seized power – also in a military coup – in May 2014, and four years later, Thailand awarded Gen. Min Aung Hlaing a royal decoration.

On Monday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan voiced American support for ASEAN’s efforts to resolve the political crisis in Myanmar, during talks in Washington with Retno, the Indonesian foreign ministry said.

The Indonesian minister is in Washington at the invitation of Secretary Blinken.

Sullivan and Retno “shared deep concerns regarding the crisis in Burma and recommitted to promoting a swift return to democracy,” a spokeswoman for the National Security Council said.


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