Myanmar eyes return to Asean fold

Myanmar eyes return to Asean fold

To understand the current game plan of Myanmar's military regime, it is perhaps a good time to remind ourselves of the letter written by former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on Aug 19, 2022. The rather blunt personal letter urged the junta leader to implement the Five-Point Consensus (5PC), saying that if he fails to do so, his Asean colleagues might ban Myanmar from all meetings and recognise the National Unity Government (NUG). In short, Asean would give the seat to the NUG. The letter angered the general, and Hun Sen's practical advice was ignored, including his call for amnesty for four activists who had been sentenced to death. For the past three years, Myanmar's seat at Asean's high-level meetings has been left vacant. Then, on Feb 29, the seat was occupied temporarily.

Indeed, that empty seat could have soon been given to the NUG, given the regime's unhinged brutality against its people and dramatic developments on the ground in the past several months. Since the start of Operation 1027 in October, Myanmar's resistance forces have been seizing township after township along Myanmar's border with Thailand, China, and India. At last count, nearly 40 townships are now under the control of various ethnic armed organisations. Half of them are situated in North Shan State.

But last month, the State Administration Council (SAC) made a quick decision to send a senior non-political, acting Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Marlar Than Htike, to attend the Asean foreign ministers' retreat in Luang Prabang. Her participation, which was welcomed by the Asean foreign ministers, has suddenly warmed up Myanmar's seat. Nay Pyi Taw joined Asean in 1997 together with Laos PDR. It remains to be seen how this participation will play out in weeks and months to come.

For the time being, as the conflict enters its fourth year, a convergence of factors is pressuring the SAC to shift away from its hard-line positions and further end its international isolation in order to sustain existing leverage on the diplomatic and battlefield fronts. Currently, although the UN is still tied up with the Ukraine-Russia conflict as well as the Israeli-Hamas war, some of the UN Security Council members still managed to highlight three years of atrocities inside Myanmar.

In early February, at closed-door deliberations on the Myanmar crisis, the nine UN Security Council's members -- the US, France, UK, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia, Switzerland, Malta, and Ecuador -- called on the junta to stop its attacks on civilians and their infrastructure. In addition, they also called the junta for the release of all political prisoners, including President U Win Myint and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

At the UNSC meeting, Asean special envoy on Myanmar, Alounkeo Kittikhoun, also briefed the council's members on the current situation in Myanmar and the outcome of his visit last month to Nay Pyi Taw where he met with the junta's leaders and other stakeholders. The Laotian special envoy's quick but quiet diplomacy has widened a much-needed window for further engagements between the SAC and its Asean colleagues.

Notably, Mr Alounkeo established dialogue with all concerned parties during the first four weeks following his appointment on Dec 22, which became effective on Jan 1. That has laid a good foundation for future cooperative efforts. Indeed, Myanmar decided to dispatch Marlar Than Htike to Luang Prabang to prevent other hardline Asean members from calling for another suspension of membership. By attending the retreat, Nay Pyi Taw is assured that its seat remains safe, even though it has yet to be fully occupied. Without substantial progress on the 5PC, Myanmar's seat will remain in limbo.

In addition, the Thai-Myanmar bilateral agreement to provide humanitarian assistance to the affected displaced persons in Myanmar has made tangible progress, complementing the 5PC. Although the idea of providing relief aid to Myanmar has been discussed before, it was not until recently that Nay Pyi Taw changed its approach and agreed to the Thai initiative on a pilot project that would begin sometime next month. Last week, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara was on an inspection tour of Mae Sot in Tak province, opposite the proposed site for the aid distribution. In the beginning, it will involve three to four villages. He said that humanitarian assistance to these areas must be effective, credible, and transparent.

Furthermore, as Thailand was working on its initiative, it also kept dialogue partners informed about the humanitarian assistance plans. At first, the plan will be limited to bilateral cooperation between the two countries' Red Cross Societies. The distribution and monitoring will be undertaken by the Asean Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Management (AHA Center). For the time being, no international non-governmental organisations will be involved. Today, only the Japanese Sasakawa Peace Foundation is allowed to deliver humanitarian aid.

Thailand hopes the pilot bilateral project will increase trust building and experience sharing to lead to broader frameworks and cooperative efforts. At present, 11 UN-related specialised agencies are helping Myanmar in various areas. They include Unicef, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), among others. These organisations would be able to assist with humanitarian plans in the future.

To ensure international support, especially among the great powers, Mr Parnpree is currently in Washington on a bilateral visit. Among the top issues he will discuss with his US counterpart, Antony Blinken, are the Myanmar crisis and the role the US can play in helping implement the 5PC and drawing in other dialogue partners to provide additional humanitarian assistance.

After the coup in Feb 2021, the US led the Western world in sanctioning the military junta and supporting the NUG, providing the exiled government with offices, funding, and non-lethal training. In a similar vein, during the recent visit of Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Mr Parnpree also informed China about the Thai-Myanmar relief initiative. These two countries, including India, are pivotal for the relief plans while a conference to pledge funding for the Myanmar people is being organised.

With the elected Srettha government in power and lively opposition parties, the Thai policy towards Myanmar has been under scrutiny. In the past few months, while the government has been busy tackling urgent economic issues, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has become more active and bolder, especially in engaging all conflicting powers. Now, with the Move Forward Party (MFP) on the opposition bench, there would be increased engagement between Thailand and all stakeholders, including the NUG and ethnic armed organisations.

Early next month, Rangsiman Rome, MP from MFP, head of the National Assembly's Committee on State Security, Border Activities, National Strategies, and Country's Reform, is organising a first-ever seminar to assess the three-year Myanmar quagmire that will involve key-note speakers from the NUG including the current UN ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun and Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung and other ethnic armed organizations. Prof Sean Turnell, former economic advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, will also take part in the seminar.

Finally, it has taken the SAC nearly three years to heed Hun Sen's suggestion. At this juncture, the junta realises it is still in a good negotiating position vis-à-vis other stakeholders. The resistance forces might have weakened the Tatmadaw's military power through thousands of surrenders and territorial seizures.

In the coming weeks, how the SAC implements the bilateral humanitarian cooperation with Thailand will serve as a barometer of the regime's upcoming strategies. If the outcomes are constructive, it could kick off some forms of dialogue among some key conflicting parties. Nevertheless, it remains a long journey for Myanmar to make a full return to the Asean family as long as the junta continues to attack civilians.

The challenge facing the Lao chair is how to make further progress in engaging all stakeholders as well as maintain close support from its Asean colleagues and dialogue partners.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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