Thu, January 27, 2022


Asean reveals its leaders’ new skills at working together

Time and again, Asean has been severely criticised for failure to take up emerging issues quickly when they negatively impact on its reputation, unity and centrality. The current Rohingya crisis is the latest case in point.

Previously, there had been numerous challenges where Asean was on the receiving end of a battering. The most notable was the grouping’s muteness over the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12. A few years back, it was the Thai-Cambodian dispute over the Preah Vihear/Phra Viharn Temple, in which Asean was supposed to serve as an unofficial facilitator. The list goes on.
Asean turns 50 years old next year - and its members have developed a unique style of engagement over a myriad of sensitive issues, whenever they are certain of positive outcomes. As such, the timing and protocol involved is of utmost importance to the process. Therefore, the scheduled event today is called a special briefing for the Asean foreign ministers on the situation in Rakhine State. Lao Foreign Minister Saluemxay Kommasith will chair the meeting but Suu Kyi has been listed as the only speaker.  
The most frequently asked question today — why did Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, suddenly changed her mind to meet and brief the Asean foreign ministers in Yangon? This is an extraordinary undertaking by the world’s most famous democratic icon. Previously, there was no indication whatsoever that she would be willing to call for such a special meeting.
Six circumstances contributed to this unusual development. Firstly, the internal dynamics in Asean have changed following the adoption of the Asean charter at the end of 2008. All signatories pledged to abide by the rule of law and principles enshrined in the charter. Moreover, the latest joint communique also stated that full respect for legal and diplomatic process was the new norm. These institutional arrangements have enabled Asean leaders to be more open and trustful to each other in bringing up highly sensitive issues. A good case study was the meeting and discussion between Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Suu Kyi on December 6 that led to the briefing today.
Secondly, since 1999, quite a few Asean members initiated discussions on internal matters during their retreats. With better understanding and sympathy, the group’s leaders, through flexible engagements, are now more willing to work together. Indonesia asked Asean members to contribute troops for a UN-backed peace-keeping operation in East Timor in September 1999 to address humanitarian and security issues. In 2014, Thailand urged the grouping to take a stand on democratisation and constitutional frameworks. When specific Asean members take up the initiative and voluntarily sideline the non-interference principle, many sensitive issues can be discussed and subsequently sanctioned by Asean. The Asean-led tripartite committee set up in May 2008 to rehabilitate and reconstruct the Irrawaddy basin after Cyclone Nargis was a good case in point.
Thirdly, Suu Kyi has now reached the necessary comfort level to confidently engage with Asean colleagues. After taking part in two key Asean meetings — the annual Asean conference in July and the 28th-29th summits in September in Vientiane — she left a good impression within the Asean family of her understanding of the importance of Asean’s approach and wisdom. She learned firsthand how the group handles and discusses civil and liberty challenges – not taking a confrontational approach but rather preferring discreet manners. Viewed from this vantage point, the briefing is a milestone for the grouping’s long term effort to listen and, if need be, to help member states to reduce tension and resolve internal quagmires with regional implications. 
Fourth, it has to do with her desire to limit the widespread misperceptions of Rakhine. Today, she will be able to provide her account after various reports, fake or real, were headlined in regional and global media. The Asean leaders will certainly take her words seriously and find ways to offer help in easing the tension, with or without a regional approach.
Thailand already has expressed a readiness to provide humanitarian aid to Myanmar. Foreign Minister Don Pramudvinai has scheduled a bilateral meeting with Suu Kyi. That was the reason Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Najib Razak’s outrage and name-shaming stunt was severely criticised.
Fifth, mounting outside pressure – especially from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the United Nations – has raised the level of urgency for Asean to address the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine as a group. Suu Kyi’s briefing is additional to Nay Pyi Taw’s effort to cope with the external pressures. In August, she set up an international advisory commission, led by former UN chief, Kofi Annan, to investigate what happened there. 
Under the previous administration, Myanmar rejected outright discussing the issue when a special ministerial meeting was proposed by the Cambodian chair in October 2012.
Finally, this is related to fear of growing militancy among Muslim communities in the northwestern corner of Myanmar. Dr Surin Pitsuwan, former Asean secretary general, warned four years ago that if they were segregated and treated unfairly, these communities would be radicalised. A recent report by the International Crisis Group has now said there are insurgents trained and financed by outsiders waging war with Nay Pyi Taw.
All in all, the briefing will serve as the first step for Myanmar to further engage with fellow Asean members and beyond on a once untouchable subject. It will have a far-reaching implications on the future of Asean as domestic developments within the member countries are having a direct bearing on the future of the Asean Community as a whole.
But there is one caveat: whatever Asean states, individually or collectively, plan to do, they must closely consult with and be agreed upon by Nay Pyi Taw. Non-Asean countries would be wise to back the group’s ongoing efforts on this matter. 

Published : December 18, 2016

By : Kavi Chongkittavorn The Nation