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Is Asean’s Myanmar five-point consensus workable?

Screenshot 2021-04-26 071445
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, centre, with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto, and Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung behind him, delivers his statement following the Asean meeting in Jakarta on Saturday. Photo: AP

The consensus forged between Southeast Asian leaders and Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to de-escalate his country’s post-coup crisis has come under scrutiny a day after it was forged at a summit in Jakarta.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) said after the talks on Saturday that the bloc had agreed on five issues: ending violence, constructive talks among “all parties concerned”, the sending of aid to Myanmar, the appointment of a special envoy to facilitate talks, and for the envoy to be allowed visits to the country. 

The army chief, who made his first international trip since seizing power on February 1 from the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD), is said to have agreed to these points. 

Detractors of the talks noted that the so-called “five-point consensus” lacked mention of the need for the junta to immediately and unconditionally release NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior elected figures currently in military custody. 

Instead, a statement released by Brunei as the current Asean chair merely said “we also heard calls for the release of all political prisoners including foreigners”. 

Since the coup, Suu Kyi – who was the de facto head of government – has been charged with offences deemed dubious by rights groups, including for allegedly illegally importing walkie talkies. 

The consensus was also forged without the presence of the National Unity Government (NUG) – a grouping of NLD figures and civil activists currently in exile or evading capture who say they are the rightful government of Myanmar. 

Here are the main areas of discussion among observers following Saturday’s talks. 

Were the talks fruitful?

Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, was among regional observers who had a dim view of the five-point consensus. 

“Asean cannot paper over the fact that there is no agreement for the Myanmar junta to release more than 3,300 political prisoners currently in detention in the country, including senior political figures who presumably would be involved in any negotiated solution to the crisis,” Robertson said in a statement on Sunday. 

He said there were also “real concerns” about the agreement given Asean’s “well known weakness in implementing the decisions and plans that it issues”.

Matthew Smith of the regional rights advocacy group Fortify Rights, took issue with other parts of Saturday’s statement. 

“The final statement references ‘reports of fatalities and escalation of violence’. This is whitewash language and an unfortunate way of describing mass murder,” Smith told This Week in Asia. 

“Asean was wrong to invite Min Aung Hlaing, and this agreement doesn’t change that. The only way out of this is for Min Aung Hlaing to end the attacks, release all political prisoners, and step down. The NUG must be allowed to proceed,” he said. 

Within the regional think tank circles – tapped upon by governments for suggestions on dealing with the crisis – the verdict was cautiously upbeat. 

Thomas Daniel, a senior analyst with Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said the very fact that an in-person meeting was held with Min Aung Hlaing and heads of state present was an “important step forward”. 

Some decision makers also saw the senior general’s presence as a small success, he said.

Other analysts noted that the path to Saturday’s talks had not been easy, with the different Asean states having different stances on the coup. 

While Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have condemned the violence and expressly called for the immediate release of NLD figures, other states – such as Vietnam and Thailand – were seen as more sympathetic towards the junta.

Evan Laksmana of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Indonesia said Saturday’s achievement was particularly noteworthy as there had been scepticism over whether Asean would be united enough to “deliver anything”. 

“What we have now is the foundation and start of an Asean-led process,” the researcher wrote on Twitter. “The 5-point [consensus] is not the end deal or solution to the crisis, yet. So critics unhappy with the content should propose workable ideas to include into the process as we move forward for Myanmar.”

Min Aung Hlaing’s words

Also of interest is exactly what Min Aung Hlaing said during the meeting. 

The junta has yet to release its account of the talks, but reports on Saturday night said the military-run Myawaddy TV said the meetings involved discussions on “the political transition in Myanmar and the process that will be implemented in the future”.
In a report on the talks published on Sunday, the state-controlled Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper did not mention the five-point consensus, saying instead that Min Aung Hlaing briefed the Asean leaders on a variety of issues including “successful realisation of the Asean objectives, political changes in Myanmar and future work programmes”.

Speaking to the media after the nearly three-hour meeting, Asean leaders sought to give the impression that the talks were held in a collegial setting, with Min Aung Hlaing receptive to their views. 

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the senior general spoke after listening to the input of the nine other Asean nations. 

“He said he heard us, he would take the points in which he considered helpful, that he was not opposed to Asean playing a constructive role, or an Asean delegation visit, or humanitarian assistance, and that they would move forward and engage with Asean in a constructive way,” Lee was quoted as saying by Singapore media. 

“I would say overall it has been a productive meeting, and it has pointed the next steps forward for us,” Lee said. “If Asean had not met, or had not been able to come to a conclusion on the matter, that would have been very bad,” he added. 

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin suggested the senior general had sought to pin blame on the violence – in which over 700 anti-junta protesters have been killed since February 1 – on the “other side”. 

But “we tried not to accuse his side too much because we don’t care who’s causing it,” Reuters reported the prime minister as saying. The junta leader “did not reject what was put forward by me and many other colleagues,” he said.

What next for the NUG? 

A major bone of contention among detractors and supporters of Saturday’s five-point consensus is the NUG’s role – or lack thereof – in the agreement. 

On social media, anti-coup protesters have largely panned the Asean meeting because of the absence of the NUG. 

People familiar with the matter say some regional countries have been in contact with the NUG, though there are concerns that prematurely publicising these backchannel talks could lead Min Aung Hlaing to cease engagement with Asean.

For its part, the shadow government’s international spokesman, Dr Sasa, released a statement late on Saturday saying the NUG welcomed “the encouraging news that Asean leaders have reached consensus that the military violence in Myanmar must stop and political prisoners be released”. 

It is not known why Dr Sasa, who is the NUG’s Minister of International Cooperation, mentioned the release of political prisoners when it was not part of the five-point consensus. 

Analysts who spoke to This Week in Asia said that as much as they believed the Tatmadaw needed to be involved in the de-escalation process, there had to be an equal role for the NUG. 

“I think the proof will be in what comes out of the Asean process next,” said Hunter Marston, a Canberra-based Southeast Asia researcher who has been following the crisis closely.

 “If a special envoy can actually get the [junta] to sit down and talk with the NUG, maybe then it will be deemed worth it that the [chair’s statement] omitted a call to release political prisoners in the short term,” Marston said, adding that the omission may have been a compromise to get Min Aung Hlaing on board with the other five points.

Daniel, the Malaysian researcher, agreed. “The envoy appointed by Asean must have access to engage with the NUG, and also the ethnic armed organisations when she or he goes to Myanmar.

“There will be no tangible political solution here without their participation. Whether the junta will allow this, or threaten to walk away should NUG be formally engaged is a key litmus test for Asean,” he added.