102 Days Later, ASEAN Finally Appoints Special Envoy to Myanmar

Ronna Nirmala
102 Days Later, ASEAN Finally Appoints Special Envoy to Myanmar Dato Erywan Pehin Yusof, Brunei’s second minister for foreign affairs and trade, addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 30, 2019.
[AP File Photo]

Updated at 6:32 ET on 2021-08-04

ASEAN appointed Brunei’s top diplomat as its special envoy to Myanmar on Wednesday, more than 100 days after the Southeast Asian bloc’s members agreed to send an emissary to help resolve the post-coup crisis there. 

Observers and human rights advocates skeptically greeted the appointment of Erywan Yusof, the second foreign minister of Brunei Darussalam, as special envoy. Some pointed to his perceived inefficacy and lack of transparency in dealing with Myanmar while the Borneo sultanate held this year’s ASEAN chairmanship.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations tasked Erywan with implementing a five-point consensus, which the bloc had reached at a special summit in Jakarta in late April to discuss the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar and its violent aftermath, according to a joint statement issued after an unscheduled ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting.

Erywan “will start his work in Myanmar, including building trust and confidence with full access to all parties concerned and providing a clear timeline on the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus before the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting,” the communiqué said, referring to a meeting scheduled for September.

The 10-member regional bloc had been widely criticized for taking more than three months after the Jakarta summit to decide who to appoint to the special ambassadorial role.

Erywan is one of the two Bruneian officials who represented ASEAN when they visited Naypyidaw in May to meet Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the architect of the coup, and present him names of envoy candidates.

The two officials were criticized for an ill-considered statement issued after the meeting, and which ASEAN later removed from its website. Their statement had referred to Min Aung Hlaing by a title he gave himself – chairman of the State Administrative Council – the official name of the Burmese junta.

ASEAN’s communiqué did not call for the release of Burmese civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government the military toppled. The statement, however, noted that the bloc’s foreign ministers had “heard calls for the release of political detainees including foreigners.”

The statement also “expressed concern” about the “fatalities and violence” in Myanmar.

More than 900 people – most of them anti-coup protesters – have been killed by Myanmar security forces since the coup.

The naming of an ASEAN envoy came soon after Washington said this week it was imperative for ASEAN to speed up its plan for initiating dialogue and reducing violence in Myanmar, especially now that the junta chief had appointed himself prime minister and announced that elections would not take place until 2023.

ASEAN also issued the communiqué two days after an official scheduled meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers.

At the April summit, ASEAN leaders – including Min Aung Hlaing – 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.

‘It’s a relief’

Disagreements between ASEAN member-states, however, delayed the start of implementing those measures.

These “contentious” issues persisted during Monday’s meeting of ASEAN’s top diplomats, leading to the bloc delaying its announcement on the appointment of a special envoy, said Sidharto Suryodipuro, director for ASEAN cooperation at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The last paragraph that delayed the validation [of the communiqué] was one on Myanmar,” he told a news conference on Wednesday.

Ultimately, all ASEAN members were firm in supporting Erywan as envoy, Sidharto said, adding there was also “a concrete commitment” that the envoy “will be given full access to all parties in Myanmar.”

All decisions in ASEAN are taken by consensus, which implies that the Myanmar junta-appointed foreign minister agreed to provide access to all parties.

But the junta has once before veered from the consensus, as was the case after April’s ASEAN meeting, when Min Aung Hlaing said he would implement the five-point agreement only when violence ended and stability returned.

Burmese political analyst Than Soe Naing cast doubt about who the ASEAN envoy could negotiate with because officials from the elected civilian government were now in jail.

“The military council has put everybody concerned into the prison and filed various charges,” Than Soe Naing told Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar Service. BenarNews is affiliated with RFA.

“Who would be negotiating with [ASEAN]? ASEAN could make proposals. But Min Aung Hlaing has ignored all of these proposals, under the guise that the stability shall be achieved first.”

Sidharto, however, said ASEAN ministers were united in their view that the consensus must be implemented “urgently” and “without conditionalities.”

He also said the joint communiqué did not constitute recognition of the military rule in Myanmar.

“Since the February 1 coup, every [ASEAN] official documents starts with the phrase ‘The meeting….,’ and not with ‘We the ministers’,” Sidharto said.

He was noting the participation of the Myanmar’s junta-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, at the Monday meeting. Burmese pro-democracy activists have denounced junta appointees being allowed to attend such meetings.

Still, “it’s a relief that the special envoy on Myanmar has finally been appointed,” Eric Paulsen, Malaysia’s representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, said via Twitter.

Another observer criticized ASEAN for losing valuable time in appointing a special envoy to Myanmar.

“[A]t this point it’s pretty clear that the problem is not about who will be special envoy. The problem is that ASEAN has not actually acted in good faith,” Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“[W]e have not seen a halt in violence against civilians. In fact, what we are seeing is more war crimes and crimes against humanity taking place in the country.”

However, a Burmese human rights attorney was more optimistic about the appointment of Erywan as ASEAN’s envoy.

“[H]e could bring something to the table, instead of the continuing stalemate,” Min Lwin Oo told RFA. “I think the ASEAN envoy need to execute the tasks, such as pushing for the release of detained leaders.”

“[W]e know that the military council will delay its actions and the negotiations will not go smoothly. I think the special envoy will have to go through the delaying techniques, such as suspending, postponing or denying the meeting with the persons concerned, or allowing to meet the person only at the second or third request,” Min Lwin Oo said.

‘Brunei was not transparent’

Another analyst, Lina Alexandra, senior international relations researcher at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), warned against high expectations.

“Brunei was not transparent to the other foreign ministers on the visit to Naypyidaw [in May], and on the process of appointing the special envoy,” she told BenarNews.

“It seems like they are making too many compromises with the Myanmar military, which is the source of the problem there.”

Erywan has been chosen as envoy to mollify those ASEAN members who are not invested themselves in human rights, said Dinna Prapto Raharja, an international relations expert at Synergy Policies, a Jakarta-based think-tank.

“He has not been chosen for his ability to navigate complex issues in Myanmar, but to come to terms with other ASEAN members that are half-hearted in their efforts, or even actively rejecting efforts to find a solution rooted in democracy and human rights,” she told BenarNews.

Dinna didn’t name names, but among ASEAN members, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are one-party states and Brunei is a sultanate.

Thai leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha became prime minister after a coup he spearheaded in 2014 as the army chief. The former general retained the post in a 2019 election, which opposition parties viewed as rigged in the military’s favor.


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