Malaysia Talks Of Leeway For ASEAN Members’ Informal Approach To Myanmar Crisis

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By Iman Muttaqin Yusof

Malaysia and the Philippines on Wednesday discussed giving fellow ASEAN states more latitude in pursuing individual and informal approaches for dealing with the post-coup crisis in Myanmar.

The question of how to handle the repressive and recalcitrant Burmese junta has divided the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after member-state Thailand engaged with Myanmar’s military at least four times lately.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim told reporters that he and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. discussed ASEAN and Myanmar at a bilateral meeting in Kuala Lumpur. 

“We did touch on Myanmar to strengthen the five-point consensus of ASEAN, but also give some flexibility, room and space for neighboring countries to engage on an informal basis,” Anwar said during a joint press conference with Marcos afterwards.

Anwar added that if this were to take place it must be done “without sacrificing the issues of human rights and the treatment of minorities, particularly Rohingya and other Burmese minorities in Myanmar.”

The Philippine president, who arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday afternoon for a two-day visit, did not mention Myanmar but, according to the Associated Press news agency, he said that in general ASEAN countries should be able to use bilateral means to solve problems.

“I think that this will be an important aspect to all the issues that ASEAN is presently facing and to all the issues that the member states are presently worrying about,” AP quoted him as saying.

ASEAN’s five-point consensus, a roadmap to restoring peace in Myanmar, has been ignored by the junta, which agreed to the plan two months after it toppled an elected government in February 2021. 

All along, the junta has cracked down on mass protests, killed nearly 4,000 people and arrested thousands more, according to human rights groups.

Aside from barring junta representatives from its meetings, ASEAN has been widely criticized for failing to make much headway in moving Myanmar towards peace. Malaysia’s former foreign minister, too, panned the consensus last year, saying it needed to be thrown out and that a new, time-bound plan with enforcement mechanisms should be formulated.

The Thai government, meanwhile, broke ranks with ASEAN and has engaged in talks with Myanmar’s military.

Earlier this month, in a shock announcement, Thailand’s foreign minister said he met secretly in prison with Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who was jailed after the Feb. 1, 2021, military coup. The meeting, Thailand said, was approved by the Myanmar junta and the imprisoned leader.

Last month, Thailand also held another meeting with Myanmar’s junta-appointed foreign minister, representatives of India and China, as well as from ASEAN members Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The Burmese and Thai militaries are said to be close, and the outgoing Thai PM is a former army chief.

Malaysia, Singapore and ASEAN 2023 chair Indonesia skipped that meeting.

The Malaysian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that its minister’s prior commitments were the reason he couldn’t attend. But it added that ASEAN’s five-point consensus remained the gold standard and bloc unity along with support for the ASEAN chair must be demonstrated.

Legitimacy for junta?

Anwar’s comments Wednesday about exploring individual member-states approaches to the Myanmar crisis, therefore, mark a change in Malaysia’s position.

His comments also followed a joint statement from ASEAN foreign ministers this month that reflected the divide within the bloc by noting that “a number of ASEAN member states” viewed the Thai meeting in June “as a positive development.”

Anwar’s rethink probably resulted from a realization that the situation seems to have become deadlocked, said Lee Pei May, a political expert at the International Islamic University Malaysia. 

“When the agreed-upon solution doesn’t yield the expected results, it’s essential to be open to exploring alternative approaches to find a resolution that benefits everyone involved,” she told BenarNews.

“This is one of the reasons why I believe Anwar has suggested that informal engagement with the Myanmar regime could be the way forward.”

An informal approach gives neighboring countries and the junta more flexibility to discuss and find common ground, May said.

“Thus, it is up to the wisdom of each country’s leader how they want to engage with Myanmar’s junta,” she added.

But another analyst, Chong Ja Ian, of the National University of Singapore, warned of the perils of informal approaches.

“[T]he issue is how much legitimacy do ASEAN or its members wish to extend to the junta. Will the junta use any contact or assistance to boost their legitimacy and the legitimacy of their actions, including on human rights abuses?” he told BenarNews.

“If there is engagement, what tangible outcomes do such engagement bring for the people of Myanmar or ASEAN? Or are they really photo opportunities for politicians?”


BenarNews’ mission is to provide readers with accurate news and information that reflects the complex and ever-changing world around them. With homepages in Bengali, Thai, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia and English, BenarNews brings timely news to its diverse audience. Copyright BenarNews. Used with the permission of BenarNews

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