By Noel Caballero
Bangkok, July 11 (EFE).- Re-engaging Myanmar’s military junta in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) highest-level meetings or maintaining a ban on top generals is a debate exposing cracks in the regional bloc, whose foreign ministers meet in Indonesia on Tuesday.
“There are ASEAN members that could identify with the military regime more than others,” lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Joanne Lin, tells EFE.
The meetings, hosted by Jakarta until Friday, will once again test the principle of consensus on which the bloc of 10 member states is based. The bloc includes Myanmar, whose self-appointed leader Min Aung Hlaing has been excluded from ASEAN appointments since the February 2021 coup.
The coup plunged Myanmar into deep political, economic and social crises, with new armed conflicts between the military and the opposition and the outbreak of clashes with ethnic guerrillas.
In April 2021, the ASEAN leaders and the junta leader agreed on a so-called Five Point Consensus for Myanmar, including an end to violence against civilians and inclusive dialogue.
However, since that date, little has been done to fulfill the pact and, contrary to its intention, clashes have intensified and spread throughout the country.
The divergence between the ASEAN partners became clear after an “informal meeting” organized by Thailand on June 19 in the coastal city of Pattaya, in which the junta’s foreign minister Than Swe participated together with representatives from five other countries of the bloc, plus China and India.
Thailand, currently under an outgoing government linked to the Thai military, leads steps to re-engage Myanmar within the Southeast Asian bloc and to allow military junta representatives to attend top-level meetings, with tacit support from Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Lin, of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, believes that the meeting would not be seen as a “move to cause further internal division” but rather an attempt by the outgoing government at “breaking the stalemate” through diplomacy.
“ASEAN countries that are bordering Myanmar will have their separate concerns, including movements of refugees, trafficking in persons, drug trafficking etc, and therefore, they may feel the need to engage with the SAC (State Administration Council, the formal name of the junta) to address these issues in a practical way,” Lin remarks.
“While those meetings may be viewed as complementary to ASEAN’s efforts, others have viewed them as providing legitimacy to the Myanmar junta and bypassing ASEAN’s efforts,” says Lin, who considers it “premature” to re-engage with the junta with “no progress” made on the Five Point Consensus.
BANNING THE GENERALS
Unsurprisingly, the meeting was used by the Myanmar regime’s propaganda apparatus to vindicate its legitimacy against the opposition pro-democracy camp.
Indonesia, which holds the annual rotating ASEAN chairmanship, is, together with Malaysia and Singapore, the member state most critical of the Myanmar junta and is firm in its position to exclude the military command.
This trio of countries, which rejected Thailand’s invitation to attend the recent meeting, openly criticized Bangkok’s position and called for joint decisions during the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting.
For its part, the Philippines has been more inconsistent – despite criticism of the junta, it sent a representative to the Pattaya meeting.
Thailand’s “initiative was carried out without due respect to the current ASEAN chair (…) and adherence to the ASEAN Five Point Consensus. Such an act has definitely split further ASEAN cohesion, unity and collective undertaking,” former Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya tells EFE.
The former minister, who believes the Five Point Consensus is the way out of Myanmar’s crises, accuses the Thai government of prioritizing personal interests and military-to-military relationships over the principle of democracy and ASEAN centrality.