Malaysia is calling on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to open informal channels with the shadow government of fellow member state Myanmar in a move quickly condemned by the military regime that seized control of the country’s government last year.
Frustrated by the junta’s failure to follow through on a five-point “consensus” peace plan for Myanmar that all 10 ASEAN members agreed to at an emergency meeting in April 2021, Malaysia had been hinting for months about reaching out to the country’s so-called National Unity Government.
Led from hiding and exile by members of the elected government the military toppled, the NUG claims to represent the true voice of Myanmar’s people, and declared war on the junta in September. The United Nations says the junta has killed hundreds of civilians since the coup and displaced hundreds of thousands in fighting with a nationwide armed resistance.
ASEAN countries have thus far engaged openly with the junta only.
In a Twitter message late last month, however, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah revealed that he had had a virtual meeting with his NUG counterpart in February, the first time an ASEAN member had admitted to a contact with the shadow government. He went further at an April 30 press conference, announcing that Malaysia would propose to ASEAN that it engage with the NUG as a bloc.
“We are not proposing for ASEAN to recognize other governments, but such informal engagement may be conceivable, especially on how humanitarian aid to the people of Myanmar who are still in their country can be delivered,” Saifuddin said.
The junta, which has designated the NUG a terrorist group, responded on May 3, calling Malaysia’s proposal “irresponsible and reckless” in a statement published by the state-run news outlet The Global New Light of Myanmar.
“Such remarks could abet terrorism and violence in the country, hampering the Myanmar government’s anti-terrorism efforts and infringe international agreements related to combatting terrorism,” it said.
At the table
The peace plan the bloc agreed to last year called for an immediate end to the violence, dialogue “among all parties concerned,” and a special ASEAN envoy to help mediate that dialogue and meet with “all parties.” It also called for ASEAN to arrange humanitarian aid for Myanmar through the bloc’s own disaster response arm.
But with the junta still trying to crush the armed resistance by force, refusing to speak with the NUG and denying ASEAN’s envoys a meeting with the detained leader of the toppled government, Aung San Suu Kyi, the plan has “totally stalled,” said Hervé Lemahieu, research director at Australia’s Lowy Institute, a think tank.
He said Malaysia’s proposal to have ASEAN engage with the NUG as a bloc was its bid at breathing new life into the plan and forcing the junta to choose a negotiating partner.
“There’s the junta, and who’s on the opposite side of the table? And if it’s not Aung San Suu Kyi — and it doesn’t appear as if the junta’s willing to concede on that point; no one’s been able to meet her — then it has to be the NUG. So, I think it’s sort of trying to force a choice out of the military ... and to reinject some momentum into what is an otherwise totally stalled five-point consensus,” he said.
For that to work, though, he said Malaysia will need to win buy-in from all members of a bloc still split over Myanmar between members critical of the junta and others, like Cambodia and Thailand, that seem to tacitly accept its control of the country. Even then, the bloc would need to sway a junta that has to date proven immune to international pressure, Lemahieu added.
Short of that, he said, just to establish regular, open contact with ASEAN would be a big win for the NUG, which is struggling to show control on the ground and has started to fade from the international spotlight.
“Seeing as the entire international community — and that’s everyone from the West to China — has given ASEAN the lead here in terms of how to move forward in this crisis, if ASEAN were to recognize the NUG as a party at the table, at the negotiating table, that would probably be the single biggest coup for the NUG that it’s had since its formation,” said Lemahieu.
Blocs within blocs
Bridget Welsh, a research associate at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute-Malaysia, said the junta has been gradually gaining tacit recognition as Myanmar’s new government from not only some ASEAN members but bigger powers such as China and India.
Malaysia’s push to have ASEAN engage with the NUG “is kind of a step in the other direction,” she said.
“It makes it more difficult for the military to gain support in the international community when countries in Southeast Asia itself are more resistant to that,” she added. “It’s one thing for the West to be taking positions. ... It’s very different for ASEAN to be saying, hey, you know, the military is not the only party in town.”
Welsh, though, believes ASEAN’s peace plan is effectively dead and that the bloc, which takes a position only when all 10 members agree, will never come together on how to deal with the unfolding crisis in Myanmar.
She said member states more sympathetic to Myanmar’s opposition — mainly Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore — were likely to forge their own path.
“It’s time to embrace difference as opposed to consensus,” she said. “And I think this is what the Malaysians are recognizing, is that they see the need to move away from the trend towards supporting and legitimizing the military because they know that this is something they’re not comfortable with and they also think it’s not productive and constructive for Myanmar longer-term.”
Besides piling political pressure on the junta, Welsh added, engaging with the NUG would also give countries and aid agencies an alternative to the military for delivering desperately needed assistance to displaced families and besieged communities. Rights groups and charities say the military is blocking deliveries to many areas.
Along with engaging with the NUG, Saifuddin has proposed doubling aid to Myanmar and hinted at working around the military to deliver it.
Lemahieu and Welsh said Malaysia’s proposal was likely to come up at a special summit ASEAN is set to hold with the United States on May 12 and 13, but would compete with the bloc’s other troubles and concerns and with Washington’s efforts to rally international support behind Ukraine in its war with Russia.