Lasting peace, security and stability have always been the core tenets of Asean from the outset. It is with great belief that the objectives can be attained through a non-interference principle and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states.
In the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Asean 2025 adopted in 2015, leaders of all Asean member states reiterated the ZOPFAN concept of Southeast Asia as a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality. The idea was agreed upon by the five founding member states of Asean, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, in November 1971.
The much anticipated Asean Leader's Meeting 12 days ago has simply continued reaffirming Asean principles towards a peaceful, secure and stable region. The chairman's statement, nevertheless, set the record straight, diplomatically and adhering to the principles of mutual respect among member states, that the region must be socio-economically and politically in harmony and prosperous.
Amid all the preambulatory statements, from managing and recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic to strengthening external relations with countries such as China, the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom, the most sought-after statement lies in the final two. They are Asean's stance towards the political turmoil of its member state, Myanmar. With a lot of media fanfare, the audacity of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who staged the coup in February, to attend the meeting, made the meeting look cynical. However, the statement on the situation in Myanmar signified Asean's priority of having a rules-based community in which its people enjoy human rights, fundamental freedoms and social justice, values of toleration and moderation.
Furthermore, the situation in the Rakhine State, Myanmar, which exacerbated during 2017's military crackdown, is also singled out in the statement. Ironically, Min Aung Hlaing was accused of being the architect of the atrocities that saw more than half a million Rohingys displaced. Instead, the very same person was reported in the meeting as having heard the concern of other states and even considered the points raised as helpful.
Therefore, coupled with the Asean's non-interference principles that hitherto has prevented any substantial progress, particularly on the Rohingya issue, the statement would always be perceived with scepticism, albeit the good intention that it aspires towards.
The five-point consensus attached with the statement shall serve as ignition in ending the political saga in Myanmar. The five-point consensus started with a call for the immediate cessation of violence, although calls for the release of political detainees were not explicitly included. Secondly, a reconciliation process through constructive dialogue should take place, through, thirdly, the mediation of a special envoy of the Asean chair with the assistance of the Asean secretary-general.
The fourth and fifth point ask for the safe passage of humanitarian aid and the visit by the special envoy to the country.
The role of a special envoy in facilitating reconciliation and democratisation in Myanmar is not something new. Despite falling short on many occasions for any meaningful outcome, such a mission provides a glimpse into how the junta could be approached and how national reconciliation between opposing parties should be carried out, as penned by the former first UN Special Envoy to Myanmar, Tan Sri Razali Ismail.
The importance of this five-point consensus could not be overemphasised towards guaranteeing lasting security and stability in the region. This is evidenced in the influx of refugees from Myanmar, mostly of Rohingyas, to neighbouring countries. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2019 reported that Myanmar is the fifth-largest source of refugees globally, with 1.1 million have been displaced. More than 742,000 Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh, 120,000 are internally displaced in the Rakhine state, about 153,000 in Malaysia, and about 93,000 in Thailand.
Myanmar's internal crisis at this scale needs swift action to avoid more bloodshed as reports emerged that clashes continue to erupt. The five-point consensus needs to be hastened to prevent the crisis from escalating further, thus, jeopardising the security and stability of the region. Perhaps on a more serious note, the Asean Troika should be activated to address this urgent situation for an effective and timely impact on regional peace and stability.
The writer is a research officer at Parliament of Malaysia.
Published in: The New Straits Times, Wednesday 05 May 2021