Asean needs longer-term approach to Myanmar

About three years ago, Asean leaders gathered in Jakarta for an emergency summit on Myanmar at which the FivePoint Consensus (5PC) – entailing the cessation of violence in the country, constructive dialogue among parties to the conflict

Asean needs longer-term approach to Myanmar


About three years ago, Asean leaders gathered in Jakarta for an emergency summit on Myanmar at which the FivePoint Consensus (5PC) – entailing the cessation of violence in the country, constructive dialogue among parties to the conflict, the appointment of a special Myanmar envoy and the provision of humanitarian assistance – was agreed upon with the State Administration Council’s (SAC) senior general Min Aung Hlaing. The 5PC has since seen very limited progress. Airstrikes by the Myanmar military and fighting among various armed actors continue, leading to the displacement of more than 2.5 million people since the 2021 coup. Inclusive platforms for political dialogue have not materialized.

While Indonesia created a new precedent of meeting with various stakeholders across Myanmar, the Asean chair’s one-year tenure remains too short for significant breakthroughs. Hitherto, observers have described Asean’s 5PC as “failed”, “toothless”, “not appropriate”, and a “dead pact” and have said Asean centrality is “in tatters”. Nonetheless, there are three useful features of the 5PC. It is deliberately capacious: its points (except naming the AHA Centre) remain broad with room for interpretation. It is not a peace plan and was crafted to avoid binding the actions of any successive chair.

Second, the 5PC is what Asean member states believe gives Asean the standing to be involved in the Myanmar crisis. Many may disagree that any agreement from Min Aung Hlaing is required for Asean engagement, but it is nonetheless significant to Asean, committed to its principle of nonintervention. Without the 5PC, there would be no basis for Asean involvement. Third, the 5PC is a measure aimed at preventing major power rivalries around the Myanmar crisis by establishing a test case for Asean centrality. Consequently, the 5PC carries high stakes for Asean’s credibility in responding to the crisis through regional initiatives. Making progress on the 5PC is crucial.


Successive Asean chairs face at least three main challenges. The first is discerning a mediumterm strategy for Asean’s engagement with Myanmar. The 5PC was designed to address the immediate aftermath of post-coup violence. But the desired “cessation of hostilities” will never come without a minimum acceptable medium-term strategy, accommodating the Myanmar people’s visions for the future. Here, half measures aimed solely at cease-fires will make no progress. Second are the limits of time and operating within the one-year Asean chair timeframe. Sensemaking and trust-building are massive undertakings, as Indonesia discovered through its painstaking efforts.

The chair needs to understand facts, histories, and perspectives on the ground, then analyse the interests of domestic and regional actors, before finally devising its policies for the year. The first two stages might already take up the best part of five months, leaving a mere two to three months to craft its approach on Myanmar for the Asean summit. The third challenge is supplementing efforts at internal convening with external rallying. It must create space to bring together Myanmar stakeholders and simultaneously muster meaningful support from the international community.

Between Myanmar, Asean and regional actors, there remains a wide gap of understanding. Many Myanmar stakeholders do not understand Asean’s processes and limitations, and many Asean member states do not fathom the complex relations and perspectives among the Myanmar groups. Asean must continue to create the space to learn from the various relevant Myanmar stakeholders and seek the support of the major frontline states, namely China and India, for its efforts. It is time to rethink the terms of the chair’s special envoy to enable Asean to deal with the aforementioned challenges. After three years, it is clear that no chair has the capacity to deal with the issue alone.

In fact, it is unfair to leave the responsibility to the chair alone. Indonesia’s proposal of a troika mechanism is a nod towards the need for a sustainable, more permanent mechanism. In this respect, the creation of an Asean office on Myanmar follows sensibly. The office should focus on three main areas of the 5PC mandate – cessation of violence, delivery of humanitarian assistance and facilitation of stakeholder dialogues – to create the spaces and conditions for a nationbuilding process.

A troika-plus mechanism (one that includes key Asean countries that have the competence, leverage and persistence to engage) could see its members share a rotating coordinator role of the office, dividing up labour by issue, stakeholders or time periods. Importantly, the office must continue engagement with all stakeholders in Myanmar, not only with the Myanmar military, as its main modus operandi. Finally, domestic engagement will have to be balanced with efforts on the external front, where the office could coordinate international envoys and rally support for Asean’s approach. A new United Nations special envoy has been appointed, and fresh coordination of envoys is needed.

While the international community has given verbal support to Asean centrality, it must also be rallied to provide support through policy options, technical assistance, resources and political leverage. With a more permanent Asean office on Myanmar, a medium-term 5PC strategy can be built. This helps to avoid short-term, individual actions, such as elections organized by the junta or through the existing Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, that might derail medium-term objectives. The Asean strategy would ideally turn into a framework that coherently guides and shapes the chair’s efforts for the year and allows each chair to make piecemeal, sustainable progress on the crisis.

This framework should outline how Asean, with the full support of the UN Security Council, can help to achieve three key objectives: (1) a humanitarian cease-fire, (2) a negotiated transition and (3) the establishment of an inclusive federal democracy in Myanmar. These objectives cover short, medium and long-term goals. New procedures for implementation and milestones to measure progress toward the objectives must be developed.

As recently as December 2023, the 17th Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting acknowledged the “need to develop concrete, practical and measurable indicators in support of the implementation of the FivePoint Consensus”. Thankfully, the 5PC is sufficiently broadly worded to allow flexibility in activities and implementation. The establishment of a permanent office in Myanmar, initiated by the current chair Laos, could be formalized by Malaysia and effected by the Philippines. The time to start is now.

(The writers are, respectively, director of research at the Surin Pitsuwan Foundation, Thailand; head of the Department of International Relations and coordinator for the Myanmar Initiative Program at the Jakartabased Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy, Myanmar.)