ASEAN at a 'crossroad' as Myanmar violence escalates

An Indonesian Special Air Force personnel stands guard at the Komodo International airport ahead of the ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo on 9 May, 2023AFP

Southeast Asian nations are at a "crossroad", a senior Indonesian minister warned Tuesday, as escalating violence in junta-controlled Myanmar loomed over a regional summit.

Myanmar has been ravaged by deadly violence since a military coup deposed Aung San Suu Kyi's government more than two years ago and unleashed a bloody crackdown on dissent.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- long-decried by critics as a toothless talking shop -- has led diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis.

Those efforts have been fruitless, as the junta ignores international criticism and refuses to engage with its opponents, which include ousted lawmakers, anti-coup "People's Defence Forces" and armed ethnic minority groups.

An air strike on a village in a rebel stronghold last month that reportedly killed about 170 people sparked global condemnation and worsened the junta's isolation.

It also fuelled calls for ASEAN to take tougher action to end the violence or risk being sidelined.

"ASEAN is at a crossroad," Mahfud MD, Indonesia's coordinating minister for politics, legal and security, warned Tuesday, the first day of the summit.

"Crisis after crisis is testing our strength as a community. And failure to address them would risk jeopardising our relevance," he said according to a copy of his remarks, listing Myanmar among the emergencies facing the bloc.

Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that last month's air strike in the central Sagaing region was a "likely war crime", and urged ASEAN to "signal its support for stronger measures to cut off the military's cash flow and press the junta for reform".

Pressure on the regional bloc increased Sunday after a convoy of vehicles carrying diplomats and officials coordinating ASEAN humanitarian relief in Myanmar came under fire.

Few details have been released about the shooting in eastern Myanmar's Shan State, but Indonesia and Singapore both confirmed that members of their embassies in Yangon were in the group.

Singapore said its two staff members were unharmed. It condemned the attack in a statement late Monday.

Indonesia, the ASEAN chair this year, said two of its diplomats were in the vehicles and were "in good condition".


The shooting happened days before the ASEAN summit scheduled to be held on 9-11 May on the Indonesian island of Flores, where foreign ministers and national leaders will continue efforts to kick-start a five-point plan agreed upon with Myanmar two years ago after mediation attempts to end the violence failed.

The foreign ministers held talks Tuesday while their countries' leaders were scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday.

Ahead of the arrival of officials in Labuan Bajo, the army deployed more than 9,000 personnel and warships to the small fishing town that serves as the entrance to Komodo National Park, where tourists can see the world's largest lizards.

In her opening remarks Tuesday, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi said the ministers had already discussed "the implementation" of the peace plan, but she did not elaborate.

A Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP that Sunday's shooting "raises the urgency of Myanmar as a key discussion point at this summit".

The US state department said it was "deeply concerned" about the shooting and urged the junta to "meaningfully implement the Five-Point Consensus".

Myanmar remains an ASEAN member but has been barred from top-level summits due to the junta's failure to implement the peace plan.

There was a vacant chair for Myanmar at the foreign ministers' meeting on Tuesday.

Marsudi said Friday that her country was using "quiet diplomacy" to speak with all sides of the Myanmar conflict and spur renewed peace efforts.

ASEAN has long been criticised for its inaction, but its initiatives are limited by its charter principles of consensus and non-interference.

Other nations, such as China and individual member countries of ASEAN, have taken the lead in trying to resolve the Myanmar crisis.

Philippine foreign secretary Enrique Manalo on Tuesday welcomed international support for the bloc's efforts on Myanmar, but said the resolution should "remain ASEAN-led".

US-based analyst Zachary Abuza said the group was unlikely to offer more than "another milquetoast statement of condemnation" despite Sunday's attack.

"Had a diplomat been killed, there would have been more pressure on the organisation to do something, but frankly they've been so feckless in the past two years that it's hard to see them actually acting in a meaningful way," Abuza told AFP.