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Inclusive National Dialogue Only Respite for ASEAN’s Solution in the Ongoing Myanmar Strife

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Coup d’état is not a new element in Myanmar’s polity since its
independence from British colonialism.

Jakarta, IO – Coup d’état is not a new element in Myanmar’s polity since its independence from British colonialism. A coup throws out the democratic polity to set up a military dictatorship. Such unilateral transfer of power would require legitimacy from a sovereign state, which often leads such an authoritarian state to be a satellite for the great power nation in its quest for survival that, in turn, carves a path for bloc politics.

With the military taking over Myanmar’s democratic polity in 2021 through a coup d’état, the democratically elected President – Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested on 1 February 2021, and the whole world witnessed the return of Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) as Junta Government took control with State Administration Council led by Min Aung Hlaing. With such developments in Myanmar, many political leaders from the political party – National League for Democracy (a party led by Aung San Suu Kyi) were arrested with a total lockdown on civil and human rights. Nevertheless, a few ousted political elites from the National League for Democracy led by Duwa Lashi La, with the support of other disparate groups, formed a parallel government opposed to the Junta Government called the National Unity Government (NUG) and constituted a defence force called the People’s Defence Force to call for ‘defensive war against Junta by National Unity Government’ in September 2021 brought the Cold War loop of Authoritarian versus Pro-Democracy conflict back to Southeast Asia. 

The Authoritarian versus Pro-Democracy division in the state system of Southeast Asia is the pattern observed during the Cold War-induced conflicts in the State of Kampuchea (erstwhile) and Vietnam into North and South Vietnam, which kept the map of Southeast Asia in flux. During the Cold War, the junta rule of Myanmar survived without any changes in their map, and the other authoritarian regimes faced the formation of new States. Fortunately, the nascency of ASEAN survived such flux in the Southeast Asian States during the Cold War and accommodated new states under its fold. However, the current state of internal strife in Myanmar has, unlike earlier Junta rule, two groups claiming legitimacy and fighting for claim over Myanmar, which may have two recourses – a division of Myanmar into two states or one China dilemma reflection in Myanmar with NUG carving a territory leading to the ‘China-Taiwan’ scenario. In either of the two recourses, such development would yield great powers like The USA and China’s intervention in the region that would trickle to the escalation of regional conflict. Such escalation of the regional conflict would see the polity of other Southeast Asian States permeable to the crisis, probably escalating conflict in mainland Southeast Asia and eventually fracturing the ASEAN consensus. Hence, to deescalate the internal strife and bring enduring peace in Myanmar, ASEAN’s immediate response to the crisis in Myanmar was the adoption of Five Point Consensus – immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all stakeholders, a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair shall facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, humanitarian assistance through the AHA Centre, and special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned. However, the Junta Government headed by Min Aung Hlaing, after two days of adopting the Five Point Consensus in his speech with the State Administration Council, announced “visits to Myanmar proposed by the ASEAN will be considered after stabilizing the country”, and the Junta Government have announced ceasefire but followed by an increased crackdown on civilians. Such developments attracted sanctions on the Junta Government by The United States, followed by Canada, the UK, the EU, and Australia. 

LOOMING ASEAN’s INEFFECTIVENESS 

In three summits since Tatmadaw took over Myanmar in 2021, the annual summit of ASEAN, every chair following Brunei chose not to invite junta leader Min Aung Hlaing but has opted to have a ‘non-political representative’ from Myanmar. With the denial by the Myanmar Junta, the 2021 ASEAN summit proceeded with no participation from Myanmar. However, the Cambodia Chairmanship witnessed the first-ever in-person summit following the COVID-19 crisis. As a chair of ASEAN in 2022, Cambodia followed the same pattern as its predecessor to have a non-political representative from Myanmar. Such successive developments have dented the legitimacy crisis of the Junta Government. Even the current chair of 2023 to ASEAN – Indonesia followed the same precedence of the previous chair not to invite the Junta Leader. 

A paradox emerges in the choice of ASEAN not to invite the Junta State Administrative Council leader Min Aung Hlaing, to secure the legitimacy required to be a Sovereign State. At the same time, ASEAN has not engaged till now with the NUG. Every summit since 2021 for Myanmar’s non-political representation, ASEAN’s chair has sought the Junta Government to send a non-political representative, depicting a paradoxical approach as the NUG was never given representation in ASEAN. Hence, the East Asia Summit, which sets off along with ASEAN’s Summit for 2023, has “lost momentum as an agenda-setting institution for the region due to intractable differences between its biggest members such as the United States, Japan, China and Russia.” Critics of failed consensus through ASEAN-led solution to Myanmar’s crisis have found reflection from Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, whose President Joko Widodo commented that “there has been no significant progress in the implementation of the five-point consensus” directly indicating the ASEAN has failed to act appropriately on Myanmar case. 

INDONESIA AS ASEAN CHAIR FOR INCLUSIVE NATIONAL DIALOGUE 

Indonesia’s ASEAN Chairman commenced on January 2023 amid three major chalenges – recovering the regional economy from the COVID-19 crisis, the emergence of ‘minilateral’ security arrangements, and the 2021 Myanmar Coup. With such challenges, the Indonesia chairmanship was themed “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth.” Two out of three challenges have an outlook for regional growth, but the conflict due to Myanmar does not. In its publication on Regional Economic Outlook on Sub-Saharan Africa, IMF explicates, “Growth tends to be lower in conflict cases across all country groups.” Spillover effect due to conflict in Myanmar on the economic growth of Southeast Asia would impact healing from downfalls due to COVID-19. So, the only way out for ASEAN’s chair, for the current and successor member countries, is to set the path to an Inclusive National Dialogue in Myanmar. 

ASEAN’s mechanism is based on non-interference in the internal matters of member countries, but the issue of human rights abuses and excess arrests committed by the Junta required sensible action. As one purpose underlined in ASEAN’s charter states, “to ensure that the peoples and Member States of ASEAN live in peace with the world at large in a just, democratic and harmonious environment.” ASEAN charter demands peaceful resolution and enhanced consultation on matters concerned with common interest. A question may be propounded: What does Myanmar conflict have a common interest for ASEAN? 

Myanmar conflict, if not resolved, would open the Southeast Asian Polity for great power games induced due to the evolving Indo-Pacific rivalry between China and The USA, the migration induced due to displacement caused by the Junta’s crackdown on civilians is pushing more burden on the healing economies of Southeast Asia due to COVID-19 pandemic, the regional trade agreement concluded by ASEAN – Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership would be least effective when Myanmar facing sanctions by major western countries thus making Southeast Asian good and services uncompetitive markets, and the intra-regional investments sourced to Myanmar by other ASEAN countries – Thailand and Singapore has invested into Myanmar’s natural gas imports would draw no returns thus hindering intra-regional flow of goods and services. 

By understanding the perils of the Myanmar conflict, Indonesia, the ongoing chair for ASEAN, has undertaken a rational approach to this conflict by demanding an Inclusive National Dialogue. Inclusive National Dialogue is “used as an instrument to resolve political crises and pave the way for political transitions and sustainable peace.” Conflict driven nations from Tongo to Yemen, National Dialogue have paved the way for the “political reforms, constitution-making, and peacebuilding” for a successful political transition. Indonesia has brought “180 engagements with the stakeholders in Myanmar since it assumed the ASEAN chairmanship in January” 2023. The two sides – Junta and NUG, were brought to dialogue in various formats by Indonesia. However, the engagement does not mean National Dialogue would immediately kick off, and conflict would stop.

Because the national dialogue does not initiate only when two parties in conflict come to the table. The participation in National Dialogue has broad stakeholders – “civil society, women, youth, business, and religious or traditional actors.” National dialogue succeeds when incorporated with the following principles – “inclusion, transparency and public participation, a far-reaching agenda, a credible convener, appropriate and clear rules of procedure, and an implementation plan.” Indonesia sensibly propounded a Troika mechanism with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Laos (the other two nationals will take up the ASEAN chair in the succeeding year), thereby creating a continuity in this process of initiating National Dialogue Myanmar, which would lead to the resolution of conflict and reduce the current volatility in Southeast Asia.


Ayadoure S. Stalin is an UGC Junior Research Fellow Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, School of International Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

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