Asean’s New Skill – Working Together

Kavi Chongkittavorn No Comments Share:
Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi (left) and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi at the Asean Foreign Ministers’ meeting. AFP

Time and again, Asean has been severely criticized for its failure to take up emerging issues quickly when they negatively impact its reputation, unity and centrality.
 
The current Rohingya crisis is the latest case in point.
 
In the past there had been numerous challenges where Asean was on the receiving end of a battering. The most notable was the grouping’s muteness over the decision on the South China Sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12.
 
A few years back, it was the Thai-Cambodia dispute over the Preah Vihear Temple in which Asean was supposed to serve as an unofficial facilitator. The list goes on.
 
Asean turns 50 next year – and its members have developed a unique style of engagement over a myriad of sensitive issues, whenever they are certain of positive outcomes.
 
As such, the timing and protocol involved is of utmost importance to the process. The scheduled event this week was called a special briefing for the Asean foreign ministers on the situation in Rakhine State in Myanmar.
 
Lao Foreign Minister Saluemxay Kommasith chaired the meeting, but Aung San Suu Kyi was listed as the only speaker.  
 
The most frequently asked question is why did Myanmar’s de facto leader, Ms. Suu Kyi, suddenly change her mind and decide to meet and brief the Asean foreign ministers in Yangon?
 
This is an extraordinary undertaking by the world’s most famous democratic icon. Previously, there was no indication that she would be willing to call for such a special meeting.
 
Six circumstances contributed to this unusual development. Firstly, the internal dynamics in Asean have changed following the adoption of the Asean charter at the end of 2008. All signatories pledged to abide by the rule of law and principles enshrined in the charter.
 
Also, the latest joint communique also stated that full respect for the legal and diplomatic process was the new norm. These institutional arrangements have enabled Asean leaders to be more open and trustful with each other in bringing up highly sensitive issues.
 
A good case study was the meeting and discussion between Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Ms. Suu Kyi on December 6 that led to the briefing this week.
 
Secondly, since 1999, quite a few Asean members initiated discussions on internal matters during their retreats. With better understanding and sympathy, the group’s leaders, through flexible engagements, are now more willing to work together.
 
Indonesia asked Asean members to contribute troops to a UN-backed peacekeeping operation in East Timor in September 1999 to address humanitarian and security issues. In 2014, Thailand urged the grouping to take a stand on democratization and constitutional frameworks.
 
When specific Asean members take up the initiative and voluntarily sideline the non-interference principle, many sensitive issues can be discussed and subsequently sanctioned by Asean. The Asean-led tripartite committee set up in May 2008 to rehabilitate and reconstruct the Irrawaddy basin after Cyclone Nargis was a good case in point.
 
Thirdly, Ms. Suu Kyi has now reached the necessary comfort level to confidently engage with Asean colleagues. After taking part in two key Asean meetings – the annual Asean conference in July and the 28th-29th summits in September in Vientiane – she left a good impression within the Asean family of her understanding of the importance of Asean’s approach and wisdom.
 
She learned first-hand how the group handles and discusses civil and liberty challenges – not taking a confrontational approach but rather preferring discreet manners. Viewed from this vantage point, this week’s briefing is a milestone for the grouping’s long-term effort to listen and, if need be, to help member states to reduce tension and resolve internal quagmires with regional implications.
 
Fourth, it has to do with her desire to limit the widespread misperceptions of Rakhine. She was able to provide her account after various reports, fake or real, were headlined in the regional and global media. The Asean leaders will certainly take her words seriously and find ways to offer help in easing the tension, with or without a regional approach.
 
Thailand already has expressed a readiness to provide humanitarian aid to Myanmar. Foreign Minister Don Pramudvinai scheduled a one-on-one meeting with Ms. Suu Kyi. That was the reason Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s outrage and name-shaming stunt was severely criticized.
 
Fifth, mounting outside pressure – especially from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the United Nations – has raised the level of urgency for Asean to address the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine as a group.
 
Ms. Suu Kyi’s briefing is additional to Naypyitaw’s efforts to cope with the external pressures. In August, she set up an international advisory commission, led by former UN chief Kofi Annan, to investigate what happened there.
 
Under the previous administration, Myanmar rejected outright discussing the issue when a special ministerial meeting was proposed by the Cambodian chair in October 2012.
 
Finally, this is related to a fear of growing militancy among Muslim communities in the northwestern corner of Myanmar. Surin Pitsuwan, the former Asean secretary-general, warned four years ago that if they were segregated and treated unfairly, these communities would be radicalized.
 
A recent report by the International Crisis Group has now confirmed that there are insurgents trained and financed by outsiders and waging war with Naypyitaw.
 
All in all, the briefing will serve as the first step for Myanmar to further engage with fellow Asean members and beyond on a once untouchable subject. It will have far-reaching implications on the future of Asean as domestic developments within the member countries are having a direct bearing on the future of the Asean community as a whole.
 
But there is one caveat: whatever Asean states, individually or collectively, or plans to do, they must closely consult with and be agreed upon by Naypyitaw. Non-Asean countries would be wise to back the group’s ongoing efforts on this matter.
 
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Bangkok-based journalist and a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand.

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