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Navigating ASEAN-Myanmar Relations: The Phnom Penh Summit as a Critical Juncture for (Dis)Engagement

14 Oct 2022
By Wrenn Yennie Lindgren

Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces Min Aung Hlaing. Source: Vadim Savitsky,

Developments emanating from Myanmar suggest that the internal situation in the country is becoming increasingly dire. This puts a strain on Myanmar’s external relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other countries.

An exacerbating factor for Myanmar’s external relations is the junta’s blatant support for Russia’s war on Ukraine. This was most recently publicly displayed at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, where Myanmar military leader Min Aung Hlaing praised Vladimir Putin for his leadership and sought closer economic cooperation.

Since the outset of the February 2021 coup, the diplomatic efforts stemming from ASEAN in hope for a breakthrough that would persuade Myanmar’s military junta to shift course have been closely followed by the international community. Now, as the situation in Myanmar further spirals, ASEAN faces the dilemma of how to simultaneously engage non-political entities and disengage the military government. Given the current state of Myanmar’s trajectory, where does ASEAN engagement go from here?

Myanmar’s Fall Perpetuates

In recent months, the pace of atrocity in Myanmar has picked up, as evidenced by grave human rights abuses, including historic executions, the targeting of elementary schools in military air raids, political repression, and unfounded arrests and false sentencing. In late July, the junta government carried out the first executions in decades when they executed four political prisoners, two of them well-known democracy advocates. Then in August, the further sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi was followed by the surprising arrest of the former UK ambassador, Vicky Bowman, who was eventually sentenced for dubious immigration charges. In September, at least seven children were killed by a junta air raid on an elementary school. In early October, a freelance Japanese filmmaker was sentenced to ten years in prison on the grounds of sedition and communications-related violations. With these developments, which have direct implications for both domestic and international audiences, making a viable case for diplomatic engagement with the military government is becoming increasingly difficult.

ASEAN’s Road to (Dis)Engagement?

As the junta government’s rule becomes more repressive and violent, international impetus to engage with the leadership is dwindling after numerous failed attempts at dialogue and appeals for a peaceful resolution. Moreover, the lingering potential for ASEAN to serve as a prioritised interlocuter has dampened, as the bloc’s rapprochement attempts have proven to be ineffective.

The Cambodian chairmanship of ASEAN has opted for disengagement from the junta’s brutal rule and only engagement with non-political entities, as evidenced most recently by ASEAN’s decision to not invite Myanmar’s junta chief to the upcoming Phnom Penh Summit and meetings in November. This will be the second year without representation from Myanmar as the Brunei chairmanship also excluded the military leadership from the 2021 virtual summit on the same grounds. Myanmar’s State Administration Council (SAC), run by the military government and responsible for communications with ASEAN, has again refused to send non-political representation to the summit, essentially cutting off Myanmar’s dialogue with ASEAN.

Myanmar’s ASEAN representation at such meetings hinges on the understanding that progress on the Five-Point Consensus, agreed upon in April 2021, would be made. The brief consensus, which calls for an immediate cessation of violence and constructive dialogue toward a peaceful resolution, has been largely ignored by the miliary government, challenging the ASEAN leadership to consider alternative ways to engage non-politically. Calls for ASEAN to consider replacing or upgrading the stale consensus have strengthened following the historic executions in August, and the topic was formally put on the Phnom Penh Summit agenda after the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in August.

As a community that is founded on the premise of unity and one voice, Myanmar’s fall has posed significant challenges to ASEAN cohesion. Individual member states, namely Indonesia and Malaysia, have made public their disappointment with the multilateral handling of the Myanmar crisis. As Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob elaborated in his 2022 United Nations General Assembly address, Malaysia views the inaction of the Security Council as “very saddening” and the handing of the matter over to ASEAN as blatant evasion of the tragedy unfolding. Urging for a “new lease of life” for the Five-Point Consensus, Yaakob called for a renewed consensus attempt “based on a clearer framework, timeframe and end goal.”

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has also called for renewed communications with Myanmar. In particular, Abdullah has been a strong proponent of pursuing dialogue with the exiled National Unity Government (NUG), which is at the fore of the opposition to the military government and comprised of elected lawmakers and members of parliament that were ousted in the aftermath of the 2021 coup. Moreover, a recent report by the Special Advisory Council has suggested that the NUG has effective control of Myanmar while the junta’s control continues to diminish and thus the international community and ASEAN should shift focus and prioritise engagement with the NUG.

Other ASEAN states have been less vocal about their concerns about developments in Myanmar. Thailand, often seen as a leading force among ASEAN, has demonstrated blatant support for the military government. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who also came to power via a coup and will face elections in 2023, maintains friendly relations with the Tatmadaw’s General Hlaing. Chan-o-cha has been criticised for simultaneously condoning the harsh atrocities unfolding in Myanmar while putting Thailand’s influence in the ASEAN grouping on the line.

The Phnom Penh Summit as a Critical Juncture

As the pace and breadth of atrocity in Myanmar continues to perpetuate, putting internal and external relations into jeopardy, prospects for negotiations with the military government or a return to the democratisation path that Myanmar was on previously are dwindling rapidly. ASEAN-Myanmar relations now face a crossroads of disengagement from previous approaches and attempts at non-political engagement that are being thwarted by the military leadership.

Since the norm for ASEAN meetings and summits has now become the exclusion or non-invitation of the military government, this leaves little space for dialogue or movement on the issue until the consensus plan is reworked and alternate communication channels are established. While the road to the Phnom Penh will likely prove to be a windy one, the summit will serve as a critical juncture in how ASEAN (dis)engages Myanmar.

Wrenn Yennie Lindgren is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.