Low Expectations for ASEAN’s Handling of Myanmar Crisis

April 8, 2024 Topic: ASEAN Region: Asia Tags: ASEANLaosIndonesiaMyanmarChinaCivil War

Low Expectations for ASEAN’s Handling of Myanmar Crisis

Laos’ lack of diplomatic capacity as ASEAN chair could create an opening for Chinese influence.

As Indonesia’s term as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Chair ended, there was both reservation and alarm at the possibility of Laos serving as its successor. In late 2023, ASEAN moved ahead with a “troika” format, with the previous chair, the current chair, and the next chair (Malaysia) serving to boost Laos’ capacity to perform its duties concerning the crisis in Myanmar, now dragging past its third year. While the first few months of Laos’ term have been unsurprisingly quiet, regional expectations for 2024 have dipped past their already low predecessors. That is highly problematic.

An early January editorial in The Jakarta Post downplayed Laos’ already low diplomatic capital, suggesting it was “unfair to expect major breakthroughs,” but reassured that the troika mechanism would prevent it from violating ASEAN’s joint declaration to keep Myanmar’s junta government in the fold. Furthermore, veteran Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn, writing as a communications advisor for the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), wrote glowingly about Laos’ preparation for its ASEAN Chairmanship, noting it has “proceeded responsibly without any hyperbole” and “one can see a more consultative and collaborative style.”

However, Kavi downplayed the role Laos could play, noting that Lao Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith had said that it would “take a miracle to solve this problem” and that former chairs Brunei and Cambodia should be given credit for laying the groundwork for peace through direct contacts with Myanmar. He also suggested that Thailand’s approach to communication with Myanmar’s State Administration Council (SAC) was “proper and necessary.”

Lifting a bloc of ASEAN states that have consistently endorsed direct engagement with the junta is dangerous, but allowing Laos to slip mildly into the background while Thailand and other states attempt to reinsert an illegitimate junta into the ASEAN fold is much worse. A case in point is the outcome of the recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in northern Laos, where the Five-Point Consensus (5PC), the long-delayed, much-maligned agreement reached back in April 2021 in Jakarta, was pushed to the side, angering members of the National Unity Government (NUG), who have often struggled to be heard. Before advocating for a “Troika Plus” model, where Thailand’s new Srettha Thavisin government could be more “proactive” and gain Thailand’s “global recognition,” it hesitated. Under the previous military-backed Prayut Chan-o-cha government, it was largely complicit.

Laos has now moved further towards the failures of the past ASEAN Chairs, like Cambodia’s run in 2022, suggesting a “Myanmar-owned” solution to the crisis, while engaging the junta bilaterally by sending diplomat Alounkeo Kittikhoun to Naypyidaw, and, like Cambodia’s special envoy, Prak Sokhonn, who in March 2022 aimed to smooth over humanitarian cooperation, was also exploited by the state propaganda paper Global New Light of Myanmar as a veneer of public legitimacy.

While unintentional, a case could be made that Laos’ neighbors drive the agenda while Vientiane remains free to accommodate its usual partners. With public debt ($18.7 billion) as high as 125 percent of its GDP, it remains to be seen how far removed from Beijing Vientiane can ever get. Laos is also tied to Myanmar’s junta, as security cooperation has long been a priority. Furthermore, as Chair, Laos has been unwilling to be as vocal as Indonesia was, perhaps because Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s grip on the country seems tenuous at best, as mandatory conscription has driven out those fearing forced service.

If forward movement on the implementation of the 5PC isn’t a possibility in the coming months, it would appear that other actors will have to claim the mantle of leadership, as seen with China’s irritation at the lack of security along its border with Myanmar and the expansion of criminality among its own nationals. It’s not difficult to see China having extraordinary influence over decision-making, as it is in Vientiane’s rational self-interest to prioritize debt restructuring and bilateral trade over resolving the Myanmar crisis, which is evident in its “Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience” theme. With expectations so low and the risks of repeating the failures of Cambodia high, Laos could opt to just coast through 2024 with other strategic priorities in mind, thereby avoiding potential ire from Beijing.

At best, Laos is left to rely on its neighbors, Thailand, China, and India, who have their own interests, whether economic or security-related. And with the security situation shifting by the minute, that doesn’t necessarily mean a favorable outcome.

Mark S. Cogan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. His research interests include Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region, security studies, peacebuilding, counterterrorism, and human rights. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations, serving in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. Follow him on X: @markscogan.

Image: Shutterstock.com.