Myanmar’s crisis could take decades to resolve but as long as it continues, it will pose a challenge to ASEAN’s ability to get on with its agenda confronting the future, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said at an ISEAS, Yusof Ishak Institute forum on Tuesday.
Referring to a special meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Jakarta on Oct 27 on this issue, he said: “It is a difficult conversation. We are still considering what further steps we can take collectively as ASEAN, but to take steps which would be constructive and helpful and not just performative.
“Our priority remains to alleviate the suffering of the people of Myanmar.”
Key decisions on this are expected to be made during the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh on Nov 11.
“I am afraid it is time for ASEAN to make some difficult decisions. Let us see what happens over the next two weeks,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the February 2021 military coup, which triggered an armed conflict and swelled the population of displaced people to more than one million.
ASEAN, meanwhile, has not been able to persuade the Myanmar junta to take meaningful steps towards resolving the crisis, despite forging a “five-point consensus” on the matter in the presence of junta chief Min Aung Hlaing in April 2021.
Several civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, remain behind bars.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and junta Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin have been excluded from high-level ASEAN proceedings so far because the bloc invites only a “non-political representative” from Myanmar to those meetings.
The regime has responded by not sending any representative, protesting that the move undermines ASEAN principles of non-interference and consensus.
Referring to Myanmar’s military, Dr Balakrishnan said: “If you look at Burmese history, they, in fact, have a very high tolerance for pain, very high tolerance for isolation.”
He said that ASEAN remains relevant, with its young population and large growing economy, as well as its key role in fostering inclusive dialogue at a time when the strategic rivalry between the United States and China is causing headwinds.
Drawing a parallel to the events preceding World War I, he said that the current “lack of strategic trust” between the US and China influences the way they engage with each other and creates the risk of a dangerous spiral of events.
“My worry about a scenario where you have two superpowers with a lack of strategic trust is that both sides, perhaps out of precaution, but both sides will view each other by assuming the worst of each other.
“And if you think through the logic of that, it means there is a very high risk, in fact, a high probability of an escalatory spiral for whatever one or the other, or both, does,” he said.
Coupled with this is an ongoing bifurcation and the beginning of a splitting of global supply chains.
“All this can very easily lead to miscalculation, mishaps, accidents, collisions in the air and sea, and unintended consequences. So you see how the stage is almost preset, if we are not careful, for a repeat of 1914.”