Lao Asean chair: better comfort level

Lao Asean chair: better comfort level

The outgrowth of the latest Asean foreign ministers' retreat in Luang Prabang last week palpably shows a better comfort level between the host and their colleagues. Such a casual atmosphere generated better outcomes without politicising or dragging on contentious issues. Most importantly, Vientiane's diplomatic finesse is highly visible in its third chairmanship in approaching Asean-related issues and challenges: the thinking is less is more with clear-cut priorities. If this trajectory continues, the Lao chair will be lauded.

At the retreat, Laos set down nine priorities under the theme of Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience Together. These priorities aim to further strengthen the Asean community, its unity and centrality, as well as its resilience amidst regional and global challenges and uncertainties.

Under Laos' tutelage, Asean will focus on connectivity, narrowing the development gap and increasing cooperation on environmental issues, helping to develop the strategic plans of the Asean Community Vision 2045, enhancing Asean centrality in engaging with the external partners, and strengthening the Asean-led mechanism to assist Myanmar in resolving the conflict through the implementation of the Five-point Consensus (5PC).

The 32-paragraph chairman's statement showed how the new chair would conduct the remaining estimated 960 Asean meetings in the months to come. Two important issues are the Myanmar crisis and the drafting of the Asean Community's Post-2025 Vision.

As it has for the past three years, the enduring Myanmar conflict remains the critical issue that will determine the relevance of the 57-year-old grouping. During the first five weeks, the chair has already built positive expectations for additional progress on the 5PC implementation. When the Asean ministers reviewed the situation in Myanmar and the 5PC progress in the old capital of Laos, there were tangible developments.

First, a senior Myanmar bureaucrat, Marlar Than Htaik -- acting permanent secretary for foreign affairs -- attended the Asean meeting for the first time since April 2021, when Asean banned political officials from Myanmar from taking part in its meetings. Lao Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith was succinct in saying that Asean foreign ministers welcomed her presence. He pointed out that the more Asean engages with Myanmar, the better and deeper the understanding between Myanmar and Asean will be, as well as with the international community.

At the Asean annual foreign ministers' meeting in the second week of July, if there is tangible progress on the 5PC, especially on the humanitarian assistance and proposed meeting, Aung Kyaw Moe, the current Myanmar envoy to Bangladesh, is tipped to become the next permanent secretary for Myanmar foreign affairs soon.

Secondly, the current Asean special envoy on Myanmar, Alounkeo Kittikhoun, quickly reached out through his quiet diplomacy to all stakeholders, including the State Administration Council (SAC) and the National Unity Government (NUG), shortly after his appointment. He will continue to do so to increase confidence among all conflicting parties that through their cooperation and dialogue, it is possible to pave a future path for the resolution of the current crisis.

That helps explain why the current chairman's statement devoted four substantive paragraphs to the situation in Myanmar, indicating the Lao chair's key concern and determination in addressing regional issues confronting Asean. At the retreat, the Asean leaders endorsed the Thailand-Myanmar efforts to alleviate the suffering of displaced Myanmar villagers through humanitarian assistance. They welcomed the plans as part of Asean's collective efforts to implement the 5PC with the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian and Disaster Management as a monitoring and distributing body.

On Jan 19, the Thailand-Myanmar Working Group met in Bangkok to discuss the delivery of basic needs to people along the border and further inland through the Red Cross Societies of the two countries without discrimination. The Working Group has selected a pilot area comprising three to four villages opposite Tha Songyang district in Tak province. They are located 100 metres away from the Thailand-Myanmar border; the closest one is about 70 metres distant.

Thailand is hoping that the initiative will result in two important developments. First, Asean must address the security and humanitarian situations in Myanmar. Second, the assistance must empower the Myanmar people to find and develop their own solutions. Therefore, the plans must put the humanitarian needs of the people of Myanmar above politics. Therefore, the delivery of aid must be done efficiently and transparently so that all assistance reaches those in need without discrimination. Thailand hopes that if the process goes as planned, other interested parties beyond Asean could join these efforts.

In addition to the Myanmar issue, another important milestone is the plan to launch the Asean Community Vision 2045 next year, one year ahead of time. It is now incumbent on the chair to ensure that the High-Level Task Force on Asean Community's Post 2025 Vision will be able to complete the draft by the end of Laos' time as chair. The timetables have been moved up due to Malaysia, the incoming Asean chair's desire to announce the new vision during the second quarter of 2025.

Fortunately, at its 13th recent meeting, the task force agreed on the core elements of the vision. For the political and security pillar, Asean remains a united, cohesive, resilient, and rule-based community that is responsive and adaptive to current and future challenges. In addition, as a nuclear-weapons-free region, Asean will contribute to global efforts on non-proliferation and reinforce its centrality through the Asean Outlook for the Indo-Pacific. Asean will promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Under the economic pillar, Asean needs to enhance competitiveness and become "future-ready, through deepening and broadening regional economic integration. Furthermore, Asean must be adaptive to digitalisation, innovation, and sustainable development."

For its social-cultural vision in 2045, Asean will be inclusive and ready to respond to future health emergencies and climate change. At the same time, it will pursue digital transformation and foster Asean identity coupling with the empowerment of women and youth. In the new vision, institutional reform is front and centre of the efforts to enhance the capacity of the Asean organisation and Asean secretary-general to ensure a timelier responsive and decision-making process. As such, better coordination and streamlining processes across sectors and pillars are necessary.

To quicken the process, each of the three pillars will be drafted separately by relevant Asean bodies and their senior officials by elaborating on the agreed core elements of the task force, which were endorsed by the Asean summit last year.

In Luang Prabang, the foreign ministers also discussed lurking security challenges, including cyber security, climate change, and developments in various regions, including the situation in the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, the Ukraine-Russia war, and the Middle East. On all these international issues, the Asean positions are well-known and established. For instance, regarding the Ukraine-Russia war, Asean reaffirmed respect for sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity and reiterated the call for compliance with the UN Charter and international law.

In the case of the Israeli-Hamas war, Asean called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and for the immediate and unconditional release of all remaining hostages, including the eight Thais still being held. The bloc is a stronger supporter of a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine coexisting peacefully.

However, one of the biggest concerns for Asean is the growing military and nuclear capability of North Korea to produce and test intercontinental missiles with longer ranges that can reach any target in Southeast Asia. Therefore, Asean has expressed grave concern over the recent surge in North Korea's missile testing and launches.

All in all, if Laos can manage the Myanmar quagmire and reduce the trust deficit among all stakeholders to fully implement the 5PC, then there is a good possibility that the long-awaited inclusive dialogue can begin. For now, it is one step at a time for the Lao chair.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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