This week, even though the 10 nations bloc is still split as to how to react to the military coup, four diplomatic sources have pointed out that the chairman and secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEan).
ASEAN, a grouping that includes Myanmar and which has a non-interference policy in members’ affairs, has led a principal diplomatic effort to resolve the country’s violent turmoil that came after four months of the overthrow of a government democratically elected.
The military has detained Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and imprisoned political opponents amid a deadly crackdown on protesters, resulting in a growing refugee crisis and the collapse of the economy.
Erywan Yusof, the Second Minister for Foreign Affairs for Brunei, ASEAN’s chair this year, and the bloc’s secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi, also from Brunei, are scheduled to meet this week with leaders of the junta, among other stakeholders, the sources, who asked not to be identified, said.
The sources warned that a trip could be delayed or derailed by last-minute logistical and diplomatic impediments.
It is unclear if the pair plan to meet with opponents of the junta, many of whom are imprisoned or in hiding. Spokesmen for ASEAN and the Myanmar opposition’s National Unity Government did not respond to requests for comment. Brunei’s ASEAN mission also did not respond to a request for comment.
The planned trip comes more than five weeks after ASEAN leaders announced a “five-point consensus” to end violence; promote dialogue; deliver aid; appoint a special envoy; and send a delegation headed by the envoy to Myanmar to meet “with all parties concerned”.
However, the special envoy has yet to be appointed amid divisions within ASEAN over the best person or persons for the job, the envoy’s mandate and the length of the envoy’s term.
A “concept paper” released by Brunei to ASEAN members last month proposed the envoy only hold the position for the rest of the year, when it would be reviewed by the next chair of ASEAN, due to be Cambodia, said three sources familiar with its contents. They said the paper also proposed limiting the envoy’s job to mediating, not basing them in Myanmar, giving them a small staff paid for by the home country of the envoy.
The conditions were seen by several ASEAN states as fatally undermining the stature and leverage of the envoy, they said.
Brunei – an oil-rich sultanate of less than 500,000 people with little diplomatic leadership experience – has not responded to the concerns, the sources added. The envoy represents the chair, so is technically appointed by Brunei, said one diplomat.
ASEAN operates on consensus decision-making, but it is a diverse grouping of democracies, an absolute monarchy, along with authoritarian and one-party communist states, and it seldom takes a strong stand on issues involving one of its own.
All four diplomatic sources said Indonesia and Thailand, two of ASEAN’s most important members, were at loggerheads over the envoy.
Indonesia initially favored a single envoy to lead a task force while Thailand, whose military has close ties to neighboring Myanmar, pushed for a “friends of the chair” body of multiple representatives, the sources said.
Spokespeople for the foreign ministries of Indonesia and Thailand declined to comment on their stance.
The compromise supported by most ASEAN states is for three envoys, likely made up of representatives from Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei, two sources said.
Next week, ASEAN foreign ministers are to be meeting in China for the annual summit between China and ASEAN. If the dispute over the envoy is not resolved beforehand, the sources have said that it is hoped that the summit will be finalized.
The current political situation was “absolutely not what China wants to see.” China watered the UN Securities Council resolution on Myanmar.
The Burmese junta stated that it would consider proposals, including a visit by an envoy, once it has reestablished stability, since the cinematic agreement was announced.
The military regime’s position undermined ASEAN’s claim of a unified position, but also reflected diplomatic realities given Myanmar’s membership of the bloc, diplomats and analysts said.
“All of this only works if there is full buy-in from the junta,” said one regional diplomat.
In addition, three sources said that the divisions of ASEAN backed their rejection of last week’s draft UN resolution imposing a gun embargo on Myanmar. Various ASEAN countries are comfortable with the non-binding resolution included in the arms freeze, but resistance from Thailand and Singapore ensured that ASEAN demanded the removal of the clause.
A comment request was not answered by the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
There are also conflicts between ASEAN countries as to when aid is to be delivered to Myanmar, fearing that early deployment of aid could be utilized by the junta for propaganda purposes, without any commitment from Myanmar to engage with its opponents.