Few had high hopes that a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which counts Myanmar among its members, would produce any serious initiative to end the bloodshed after Myanmar’s coup, with the junta leader himself in attendance.
Yet the summit’s concluding “consensus statement” — accepted by all member states including Myanmar — did stretch the bounds of ASEAN’s longstanding principle of non-interference in members’ internal affairs.
It called for an end to violence and a dialogue among all parties — interpreted by some as an attempt to broker talks between the junta and Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government (NUG) — as well as the naming of an ASEAN envoy and a humanitarian aid mission.
Myanmar activists say the ASEAN plan is still too weak and has little real chance to bring peace to Myanmar, where mass protests and strikes have continued despite the killing of hundreds of mostly peaceful protesters since Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government was toppled on Feb. 1.
And the final statement removed language from a draft of the consensus points which had said more than 3,000 political prisoners detained since Feb. 1 would be freed.
Still, for a grouping long derided as ineffective by its critics, the statement and action plan do amount to a shift in approach.
“This summit and statement was more blunt,” said Kantathi Suphamongkhon, former Thai foreign minister. “The level of violence was a factor.”
Activists say more than 700 protesters have been killed. Graphic footage posted online of security forces seemingly shooting to kill may have been hard for the leaders to ignore.
Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, said that even if the statement had been couched in a need for humanitarian assistance, it “really pushes aside, for the first time, the reluctance to intervene”.
In recent years, ASEAN has carefully steered clear of opining on Thailand’s own military coups in 2006 and 2014 and the jailings of political activists in Vietnam, Cambodia and other member states, as well as other regional crises.
Yet countries in the region may feel under increasing pressure from Chinese assertiveness, and uncertain whether they can still count on the United States and other Western powers to play the bigger role in the region that they once did.
China has extensive economic interests in Myanmar, and has declined to condemn the coup.
Even if ASEAN’s dial has shifted slightly, the divisions among its members put any peace plan at a disadvantage before it even begins.
While Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand all made strong individual statements condemning the violence, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo called for release of political prisoners, other members including Vietnam and Cambodia have been more muted.
And many say ASEAN has no real leverage over coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and his generals — even if members were to go beyond words and take action such as economic sanctions, which most consider extremely unlikely.
Kobsak Chutikul, a retired ambassador and former member of Thailand’s parliament, said the fact that ASEAN’s leaders had managed to agree a consensus plan was “a pleasant surprise”, before noting that little had changed on the ground: “The killings and abductions continued during the summit.”
Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, welcomed ASEAN’s change in tone and its action plan.
“It is something of a departure from past ASEAN actions,” he said. “But I’m still not super hopeful that this is going to lead to real change in Myanmar.”