Asean too late for Myanmar?
The appointment of Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as Asean special envoy to Myanmar last week is better late than never.
The special envoy’s appointment is part of a five-point consensus that was agreed upon by Asean leaders during an April 24 meeting searching for a solution to the Myanmar crisis following the Feb 1 coup that ousted the elected civilian government under Aung San Suu Kyi who has been detained together with other civilian officials.
The delay in the envoy’s appointment is described by the international media as due to internal wrangling within the group; with Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines opting for a proactive approach; while the rest, including Thailand, preferring quiet diplomacy which is almost synonymous with sitting on the problem while violence is being committed.
Mr Erywan, a seasoned diplomat from Brunei which is also the current Asean chair, has a great challenge ahead of him. The rejection by Myanmar civil society organisations (CSO) against his appointment is the first hurdle he needs to clear. The CSOs last week lambasted the process which won the sole approval from the junta without consulting the National Unity Government (NUG), civil society, and pro-democracy forces including the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).
Given that his appointment came very late, Mr Erywan has to race against time to ensure what he mentioned as “more substantive discussions”, on issues like “cessation of violence, dialogue and mediation” among the conflicting parties, can be realised while also securing humanitarian assistance for the country. Mr Erywan is planning another trip to Myanmar after an earlier June visit when he met with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing. For the next visit, which has not been dated, he has stressed that he wants full access to all Myanmar parties concerned in order for meaningful progress to be made.
Asean’s well-known ethos of non-intervention in another member state’s affairs has barred members from taking progressive steps to tackle the issue. Besides, rising divergence among the members, particularly on key topics like a ban on arms sales to the junta, is more evident. With such disparity, Asean has acted and reacted clumsily to Myanmar’s crisis in what observers termed as “too little, too late’.’ As special envoy, Mr Erywan must prove that his appointment is not just a “face-saving” tactic but, instead, he needs to show his determination to make a difference.
It’s necessary that all Asean members render the special envoy all the support he needs, so the mission will not be in vain and the ultimate goal — solving the crisis through political means — can be reached. With regard to geopolitics and regional bonds, Asean remains a key actor in finding a solution to the Myanmar crisis. The group must convince the world that it can go beyond churning out empty rhetoric, but take meaningful steps in what is a challenging problem. It has to also engage other regional and global players, ie its key dialogue partners, particularly China as well as Russia, for this noble mission.
Asean has an obligation to warn the junta leader that everyone will lose if the conflict drags on. Min Aung Hlaing must not wait until the political tide turns against both him and his regime. He has a chance through Mr Erywan’s upcoming visit. He needs to take it.