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Thursday, March 7, 2024

Troika Diplomacy and Fragile Hope: Can Indonesia, Laos, and Malaysia Break the Deadlock in Myanmar?

Laos is leading the ASEAN bloc for the third time in 2024, having previously chaired in 2004 and 2016. The theme for its chairmanship is “Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience,” underlining Laos’ dedication to promoting a more interconnected and robust ASEAN. However, one of the main challenges for Laos to address under its chairmanship is the ongoing conflict and instability in Myanmar. Laos appointed Alounkeo Kittikhoun as its special envoy to Myanmar, aiming to push forward the implementation of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus peace plan in Myanmar. Alounkeo, with extensive diplomatic experience, faces the challenging task of facilitating a negotiated solution to Myanmar’s conflict, which has escalated since the military coup in February 2021. The consensus, calling for an end to violence and inclusive dialogue, seems increasingly out of touch with the ground reality of a deepening conflict. ASEAN’s divided stance on the issue, with some members advocating for active involvement and others adhering to the principle of non-interference, limits the potential impact of Alounkeo’s role.

Following the appointment, on January 11, 2024, Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military leader, had a meeting with Alounkeo Kittikhoun, ASEAN’s special envoy handling the Myanmar crisis. This meeting coincided with Laos beginning its tenure as the chair of ASEAN. ASEAN has consistently pressed the military in Myanmar to comply with the “five-point consensus” aimed at restoring peace, but the military regime has been hesitant to follow through. According to state media, the discussions centred on the government’s initiatives towards achieving peace, stability, and national reconciliation. Min Aung Hlaing asserted that his government is aligning the implementation of the ASEAN five-point consensus with the State Administration Council’s own roadmap. However, the spokesperson for Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) emphasised that the special envoy should engage with all involved parties, not only the military. As of now, Laos has not publicly commented on the envoy’s visit or the meeting in its state-run media, nor has it made any official statements as the ASEAN chair regarding the meeting.

In the latest round of ASEAN’s Foreign Ministers Retreat in Laos, escalating violence in Myanmar and China’s assertive activities in the South China Sea were major points of discussion. For the first time since the military coup in February 2021, Myanmar sent a high-level representative, ASEAN Permanent Secretary Marlar Than Htike, to an ASEAN foreign ministers meeting, which is viewed as a positive development. Laos, holding the ASEAN chairmanship and sharing a border with Myanmar, has sent a special envoy to Myanmar to promote the ASEAN “five-point consensus” for peace, though the military has so far ignored the plan. Lao Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith expressed cautious optimism about progress on these issues. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan remained cautious about Myanmar’s commitment to the plan. ASEAN aims to increase humanitarian support while pushing for the consensus’s full implementation. Thailand is also advancing its efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, where over 2.6 million people have been displaced by civil conflict.

The meeting between Min Aung Hlaing and ASEAN’s special envoy Alounkeo Kittikhoun and Foreign Ministers Retreat presents several significant points for analysis. To begin with, the visit by ASEAN Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn to Laos indicates proactive measures by Laos to prepare for its leadership role within ASEAN. Engaging in discussions with high-level officials about key areas such as political security, economic, and socio-cultural aspects demonstrates Laos’ commitment to playing a constructive role in the regional bloc. In addition, ASEAN has been actively involved in addressing the crisis in Myanmar, and the meeting between Min Aung Hlaing and ASEAN envoy and his claim of aligning the ASEAN five-point consensus with the State Administration Council’s roadmap suggest a nominal acknowledgment of ASEAN’s efforts. However, the lack of substantial progress and the military regime’s reluctance to fully comply with the consensus indicate ongoing challenges in resolving the crisis.
Furthermore, the National Unity Government’s call for the ASEAN envoy to engage with all stakeholders, not just the junta, highlights the complexities of the Myanmar situation. An inclusive approach involving all parties is critical for meaningful dialogue and long-term peace. Lastly, this situation underscores the delicate balance that ASEAN must maintain in addressing regional conflicts. While ASEAN aims to play a mediating role, its influence is limited by its principle of non-interference and the need to respect the sovereignty of member states.

Laos’ preparations for ASEAN leadership, coupled with ongoing efforts to address the Myanmar crisis, reflect the regional bloc’s commitment to stability and peace. ASEAN’s credibility is at stake as the failure to make any significant progress in Myanmar, has damaged ASEAN’s reputation as a regional power broker and mediator. The military’s continued defiance of ASEAN’s consensus principles could force the bloc to consider more difficult steps like suspension from membership, further isolating Myanmar but risking regional instability. The situation in Myanmar is also influenced by external factors like China’s interests and the global geopolitical landscape.

Laos, known for its quiet diplomacy, might prioritise small, achievable goals like facilitating prisoner releases or humanitarian access improvements. Even counternarcotics, due to its impact on Laos, may find a place on the ASEAN agenda. The troika mechanism, involving Indonesia, Laos, and Malaysia, could ease the burden but Laos’ proximity to Myanmar and Thailand may influence its stance. Myanmar-Laos trade is minor, and Laos’ support for Thailand’s engagements likely stems from convenience. The Myanmar crisis, affecting Laos more than Thailand, has led to a drug epidemic. Counternarcotics and policing may be raised during Laos’ chairmanship, aligning with its national interest. However, China’s influence poses challenges. Laos’ stranglehold with Chinese debt limits its capacity to balance relations.
Despite challenges, Laos aims to enhance connectivity and resilience during its chairmanship. Its success depends on navigating complex issues, including the Myanmar crisis, counternarcotics, and balancing international relations. Laos’ approach may involve maintaining a delicate balance, prioritising national interests, and leveraging regional cooperation to address pressing concerns. This could lead to some easing of tensions but wouldn’t address core issues like political dialogue or power-sharing. The military might offer some concessions to maintain ASEAN engagement and avoid further sanctions, but substantive progress towards democracy or federalism would remain unlikely. The ongoing violence in Myanmar, therefore, presents a complex situation that ASEAN, known for its cautious approach, is unlikely to resolve, raising concerns about the potential collapse of Myanmar’s military administration.

Dr. Cchavi Vasisht
is a Research Associate at Vivekananda International Foundation. She has completed her PhD from the Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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