Realistic Path Forward: Malaysia’s Call for Rethinking the ASEAN-Myanmar ‘Consensus’

In April 2021, just months after the military coup in Myanmar, the ASEAN bloc reached a prospective understanding among themselves aiming to sort out the crisis. More than one year on, ASEAN’s five-point, lowest-common-denominator agreement aimed at pressuring Myanmar’s military (or “Tatmadaw”) to step back from power is obsolete. Four out of the five points — working to end violence; promoting constructive dialogue; appointing a special envoy to facilitate dialogue; and allowing the special envoy to visit with all parties — have failed to materialise, miserably so. The last remaining point, humanitarian assistance, while still sorely needed, has yet to get off the ground. In large part, this is because of the breakdown of other components of the consensus and the resistance of the Tatmadaw to external pressure.

ASEAN’s five-point failure has showcased the regional organisation’s impotence and divisions. These have deepened since Cambodia took over the regional organisation’s chair this year. Not only did the visit to Myanmar in January by Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister fail to achieve anything substantial, it further split the regional organisation between those willing to work with and legitimise the autocratic military and those deeply uncomfortable with the junta who have engaged in violence against the Myanmar population and jailed democratically-elected leaders and civilians.

In the fifteen months since the military took up arms against the Myanmar people, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) estimates that at least 1,803 civilians have been killed while more than 13,000 people have been arrested with another 1,900 charged on outstanding warrants as of this week. The economy has been hard hit with fiscal instability and inflation, as economic growth has plummeted. The country is in an all-out civil war that extends from assassinations in cities to the burning of villages. Just last month alone, the military burned an estimated 2,521 homes in Sagaing as part of the Tatmadaw’s relentless scorched earth campaign. By any measure not only is ASEAN (and the rest of the international community) failing the Myanmar people, but the costs of enabling the military have been high. Taken collectively in the past decade, the military’s violence and human costs in Myanmar, including the genocide against the Rohingya, make the tragedy of Ukraine pale in comparison.

Malaysia’s proposals

In late April, Malaysia openly called for a different approach. Steered by its foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, Malaysia is, in effect, admitting that ASEAN’s five-point consensus is not working, and has not been working for some time. There are three cornerstones of Malaysia’s new proposals for ASEAN. First, informal engagement with the National Unity Government (NUG), a group of displaced democratically-elected leaders from Myanmar. Second double humanitarian assistance to Myanmar through more viable and transparent mechanisms, including the prominent NGO Mercy Malaysia. Third, strengthen the power of the two special ASEAN envoys to engage in Myanmar.

These proposals recognise the harmful stalemate situation ASEAN faces and brings out in the open the ongoing informal engagement multiple countries in ASEAN have had with the NUG. Malaysia’s Saifuddin Abdullah is the first foreign minister among ASEAN countries to publicly acknowledge engagement with the NUG. He is also the first to highlight that there is a new reality in Myanmar itself, in which the NUG plays an important role. Working with allied ethnic armed groups, the NUG now controls an estimated 45 per cent of the country. Since former National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders are jailed, the NUG is the most legitimate and democratic governing body in Myanmar, with deep ties in society. As April’s stay-at-home protests during the Thingyan holiday showed, the Myanmar public at large does not support the military.

If humanitarian assistance is to have any viable chance of reaching those most in need (and not pocketed by the deeply corrupt Tatmadaw), the NUG needs to be included in discussions. Stopping short of officially recognising the NUG, Malaysia’s proposals acknowledge the multiple power centres inside a country at war with itself. As expected, the junta has already responded to the proposals with its persistent recalcitrant blustering. Other governments in ASEAN are likely to resist this approach as well. Cambodia and Thailand have led the charge regionally in recognising and de facto legitimising the military within ASEAN. They have faced resistance primarily from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. These divisions are widening, weakening ASEAN and undermining the ability of the organisation to represent the region on other issues. The issue of Myanmar’s (non) attendance in meetings has already led to the postponement of the foreign ministers’ retreat in January and continues to cast a shadow on ASEAN’s engagement with international powers.

Yet, it is not the first time that ASEAN has had different relationships with parties fighting each other. Cambodia before the 1991 peace agreement is illustrative. Parallel discussions by the core five ASEAN countries with Cambodia’s warring factions helped bring about peace. Myanmar needs a similarly diverse approach in which ASEAN moves away from vesting Myanmar’s future only in the widely-despised Tatmadaw. By working only with one side in an ongoing conflict, ASEAN risks becoming more complicit in the deadly tactics adopted by the military, and the bloc will lose further credibility.

Broader engagement will also foster trust on the ground that is needed for humanitarian efforts. Few appreciate the seriousness of the humanitarian situation in Myanmar. A UNDP study released in December 2021 found that 25 million people now live in poverty, with the Tatmadaw wiping out 15 years of economic growth in less than a year. In February, the UN estimated that the number of Internally Displaced Persons has doubled to 800,000. Numerous reports highlight the gravity of the conditions people in Myanmar face. Last October, the World Food Programme estimated that 6.2 million people will go hungry. With inflation and continued conflict, economic and social conditions have only worsened since.

Why Malaysia?

Malaysia is uniquely poised to push ASEAN in a different direction. It has had a long history of calling for change in Myanmar. Malaysia was the most active in calling for Myanmar to be part of ASEAN and is committed to bringing greater prosperity and stability to the country. It was Razali Ismail, a senior diplomat, who led the region’s dialogue with Myanmar’s democracy-icon Aung San Suu Kyi as the regime opened up in the early 2000s. Malaysia has also been the most critical of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, a persecuted and displaced Muslim minority community. Since 2018, Malaysian governments have been proactive in drawing attention to conditions within Myanmar, with the current foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, and former foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar, actively engaged in seeking solutions to the crisis caused by the military coup over the past 15 months.

Part of this is due to the nexus that Myanmar issues play domestically within Malaysia. Concerns about the treatment of Rohingya festers within Malaysia itself. With over 100,000 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia officially, and unofficial numbers believed to be double this, Malaysia grapples with creating conditions to reduce violence and redress long-standing mistreatment of this community. The NUG is arguably the most accepting of this community among all of the different parties involved in Myanmar. Last month’s riot at a Malaysian detention centre in which six people died illustrates how serious the Rohingya issue is domestically and that Malaysia’s own treatment of Rohingya needs to improve. Sparked by prolonged detention, poor living conditions, and the failure to provide medical treatment to a Rohingya detainee, the tragic incident has brought to the fore (yet again) the need for victims of genocide to be treated more humanely. It also reaffirms that the problem with Rohingya refugees cannot be addressed without progress toward peace in Myanmar itself.

To date, the ASEAN’s five-point consensus has only served to reinforce conflict in Myanmar and contention among the Association’s members. Malaysia’s proposals realistically combine greater humanitarian assistance with the complex realities on the ground. They move engagement with Myanmar away from a narrow focus on the military and towards those with stronger ties to the Myanmar people — a direction that is needed if the situation in Myanmar is to improve. They offer a way forward.


First published on 9DashLine.