With Myanmar entering the second year of the February 1, 2021, military takeover, the limited outcome of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ‘Five-Point Consensus’ to address the political and security situation in that country has now resulted in the regional grouping coming under pressure to a decisive step on its initiative.
It was in this context, that the Malaysian Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, during his maiden visit to neighbouring Thailand in February 2023, called for a robust ASEAN initiative with respect to the otherwise “reclusive” and militarised nation. The visiting Premier, while delivering the keynote address on the ‘Future of ASEAN’ organised by the Malaysian-Thai Chamber of Commerce, said that ASEAN “should carve Myanmar out for now” and went on to add that the regional bloc should have “a strong consensus in giving a strong message to the Myanmar regime”.[i]
In an interview with the Thai Public Broadcasting Service, PM Anwar Ibrahim said that the PM ASEAN Way of addressing conflicts in the region in the past has been “extremely productive in dealing many”[ii] challenges that the region had faced in the past, but then the “ASEAN Way need to revise when it comes on Myanmar crisis because constructive engagement has not been working”.[iii]
Anwar Ibrahim also said that the developments within Myanmar cannot entirely be seen as the internal affairs of that country. This is so as the developments within Myanmar has a direct impact upon nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand in form of a refugee situation.[iv] He had also urged his Thai counterpart, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, to play a bigger role in addressing Myanmar’s crisis.[v]
ASEAN’s attempt of the past year
The views that have been expressed by PM Anwar Ibrahim during his visit to Thailand echo the sentiments expressed by the previous Malaysian dispensation, as the same can be deduced from the January 2022 Twitter post of then Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah. The former Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, in his social media post, had expressed his reservation about the then ASEAN Chair, the Prime Minster of Cambodia Hun Sen’s visit to Nay Pyi Daw, Myanmar’s capital on January 7–8, 2022. This was so as a section of ASEAN was inherently sceptical of both engaging and being seen as engaging the regime in Myanmar.
However, Hun Sen’s visit to Nay Pyi Daw was not only meant to sensitise the Generals about ASEAN’s ‘Five-Point Consensus’ but also to extend a diplomatic avenue for Nay Pyi Daw to interact with the regional community that ASEAN represented. Despite repeated efforts, the junta was not seen yielding any concession on the ‘Five-Point Consensus’, which resulted in ASEAN limiting its formal engagement with the junta to ‘non-political representation’ for its internal deliberations. The call to downgrade the level of interaction was taken by ASEAN towards the end of Brunei’s tenure as the Chair of this regional bloc in 2021[vi] after due deliberations.
Can ASEAN ‘carve’ out Myanmar?
Anwar Ibrahim’s clarion call, will have to be seen in a larger context of the Indo-Pacific regional dynamics, including Myanmar’s neighbours. For one, ASEAN as a regional grouping does not share a homogenous outlook on all issues. The points of divergence are not only limited and determined by geographic location of each of the ten members of this regional grouping but also by the nature of domestic politics and administrative systems. In the case of Myanmar, ASEAN seems to be internally divided.
For instance, Thailand has maintained its ties with Myanmar. As recently as January 2023, the 8th High-Level Committee Meeting between Myanmar and Thai Armed Forces was held in the Rakhine State.[vii] What is interesting to note, apart from the bilateral engagement is the location. The Rakhine State was the very province of Myanmar which in August 2017 had witnessed targeted attacks on the Rohingyas, resulting in their mass exodus of this community to neighbouring Bangladesh. Apart from this, Thailand has also participated in the 7th Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in July 2022 in Myanmar, wherein members like Cambodia, China, Laos, and Vietnam too participated. On the other hand, nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore that do not share a border with Myanmar have been advocating for tougher posturing with respect to their engagement with the junta.
Thus, in this light, the prospects of ASEAN taking a really hard position on Myanmar are remote, as there are some nations that would not want Myanmar to be isolated and criticised beyond a certain point. Nations like Thailand and Laos, which share a sensitive and porous border with Myanmar, do not have the luxury of disengaging with the Generals in Nay Pyi Daw. And finally, owing to the location of Myanmar, these nations would also be looking at the position being taken by Myanmar’s northern and western neighbours and would not be limited to following what some of their fellow ASEAN members and sections of the international community think is the right approach towards Myanmar.
*Dr. Sripathi Narayanan, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] “Anwar says Asean should ‘carve’ Myanmar out for now”, Eleven Myanmar, February 11, 2023, accessed on https://elevenmyanmar.com/news/anwar-says-asean-should-carve-myanmar-out-for-now, accessed on February 20, 2023.
[ii] “Malaysian PM Anwar calls on Asean to explore new approaches in dealing with Myanmar crisis”, The Star, February 12, 2023, https://www.thestar.com.my/aseanplus/aseanplus-news/2023/02/12/malaysian-pm-anwar-calls-on-asean-to-explore-new-approaches-in-dealing-with-myanmar-crisis, accessed on February 20, 2023.
[iii] “Malaysian PM Anwar calls on Asean to explore new approaches in dealing with Myanmar crisis”, The Star, February 12, 2023, https://www.thestar.com.my/aseanplus/aseanplus-news/2023/02/12/malaysian-pm-anwar-calls-on-asean-to-explore-new-approaches-in-dealing-with-myanmar-crisis, accessed on February 20, 2023.
[iv] “Malaysian PM Anwar calls on Asean to explore new approaches in dealing with Myanmar crisis”, The Star, February 12, 2023, https://www.thestar.com.my/aseanplus/aseanplus-news/2023/02/12/malaysian-pm-anwar-calls-on-asean-to-explore-new-approaches-in-dealing-with-myanmar-crisis, accessed on February 20, 2023.
[v] Tan Hui Yee, “Anwar says ASEAN should ‘carve’ Myanmar out for now”, The Straits Times, February 11, 2023, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/anwar-says-asean-should-carve-myanmar-out-for-now, accessed on February 13, 2023.
[vi] “South-east Asian states to invite non-political figure in Myanmar to summit”, The Guardian October 16, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/16/south-east-asian-countries-to-invite-non-political-figure-from-myanmar-to-summit, accessed on March 8, 2023
[vii] “Chief of Defence Forces of the Royal Thai Armed Forces and party arrive in Myanmar to attend 8th High-Level Committee Meeting”, The Global New Light of Myanmar, January 20, 2023, https://www.gnlm.com.mm/chief-of-defence-forces-of-the-royal-thai-armed-forces-and-party-arrive-in-myanmar-to-attend-8th-high-level-committee-meeting/, accessed on February 23, 2023.