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US Joins Calls Pressing ASEAN to Appoint Special Envoy to Myanmar

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featuring insight from

Dinna Prapto Raharja, Founder of Synergy Policies,

Associate Professor in International Relations

ASEAN has been widely criticized for not appointing a special envoy amid reports of dissension within the bloc’s ranks.

The United States added its voice Wednesday to international calls pressing ASEAN to appoint a special envoy to Myanmar, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying the regional bloc had to act urgently to resolve a post-coup crisis there.

Blinken’s call and a similar one made by the U.N. human rights chief last week came amid a nearly three-month delay in the Southeast Asian bloc’s appointment of an emissary, indicating that ASEAN’s role in resolving the crisis has been rendered ineffective, one analyst told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

During Blinken’s first meeting with his counterparts from the 10 member-states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the secretary “called on ASEAN to take joint action to urge the end of violence, the restoration of Burma’s democratic transition and the release of all those unjustly detained,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

“The secretary said that ASEAN’s five-point consensus is an important step forward and urged ASEAN to take immediate action to hold the Burmese regime accountable to the consensus and to appoint a special envoy.”

Blinken also stated that “the United States stands with Southeast Asian claimants” in the face of China’s “coercion” and “unlawful maritime claims” in the South China Sea.

At a special summit in Jakarta on April 24, ASEAN’s members adopted a five-point consensus on Myanmar, which included calling for the appointment of a special envoy to Myanmar and an immediate end to violence.

Among statements or transcripts of speeches issued Wednesday by the foreign offices of ASEAN members the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, only the one from the Philippines directly stated Manila’s support for appointing a special envoy to Myanmar. However, it did not urge more swift action on the appointment.

For his part, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told the meeting: “Malaysia remains gravely concerned over the situation that has been unfolding over the recent months.”

“Malaysia reiterates our call for de-escalation of the situation in Myanmar as a matter of priority. We urge all parties to contribute to a conducive environment for national dialogue and reconciliation to take place,” he said.

ASEAN has been widely criticized for not appointing a special envoy amid reports of dissension within the bloc’s ranks, even as nearly 900 people have been killed during anti-junta protests by Burmese security forces since the military toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in a coup on Feb. 1.

Blinken’s comments were a strong message not only to ASEAN but to Myanmar as well, because the junta-appointed foreign minister was present at Wednesday’s video-meeting, said Hunter Marston, a researcher on Southeast Asia at the Australian National University.

“Blinken’s comments regarding Myanmar are significant because the junta-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin was also present at the meeting,” Marston told BenarNews.

“So the statement was a direct U.S. message to the junta and ASEAN counterparts that the U.S. supports stronger ASEAN action to restore Myanmar democracy.”

ASEAN’s failure to fully implement the consensus shows the members were wavering in their commitment to democracy in Myanmar, said Dinna Prapto Raharja, an international relations analyst at Synergy Policies, a Jakarta think-tank.

“In my opinion, ASEAN has lost the momentum on appointing a special envoy. That ship has passed,” Dinna told BenarNews.

ASEAN’s ‘Democratic-Authoritarian Split’

ASEAN’s failure to appoint an envoy was likely caused by an internal split over which country’s nominee would get the post, Marston said.

“In my view, the holdup reflects divisions between ASEAN’s democratic bloc – Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore – and more authoritarian, military-ruled countries, namely Thailand,” he said.

Marston was referring to how Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who engineered his own coup in 2014, is said to be close to the Myanmar military.

Marston said the two main contenders for the envoy role were Hassan Wirajuda, a former Indonesian foreign minister and Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai deputy foreign minister. A former Malaysian human rights commission chief, Razali Ismail, is being considered as an alternative.

“The first two essentially mirror that democratic-authoritarian split, so indecision apparently revolves around whether to adopt kid gloves in dealing with the Myanmar military junta or taking a more ambitious, values-based approach in the form of Indonesia’s candidate for the job,” Marston said.

Syed Hamid Albar, chairman of the Malaysian Advisory Group on Myanmar and a former foreign minister, believes Indonesia’s Wirajuda should be ASEAN envoy to Myanmar.

“When Myanmar was transitioning to democracy [previously] it was trying to emulate the earlier Indonesian democratic model, and Hassan was involved in a number of workshops and seminars for democracy in Myanmar,” Hamid told BenarNews.

“He has access and is a very good diplomat and negotiator.”

Dinna of Synergy Policies said Indonesia should, of its own accord, take on a more prominent role on the Myanmar crisis resolution because it is a founding member of ASEAN and the region’s largest country.

“Basically, ASEAN can no longer be relied on in the case of Myanmar. Indonesia should take a bolder role because the other ASEAN countries will definitely not take that position, hence the impasse,” she said.

South China Sea

Meanwhile, the Philippines welcomed Blinken’s rejection of China’s expansive maritime claims in the contested South China Sea.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he welcomed U.S. support for the 2016 verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that ruled in favor of the Philippines and against China’s vast claims to the waterway.

“It is binding international law and the most authoritative application of UNCLOS on the maritime entitlements of features in the South China Sea,” he said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“As such, it contributes to the rules-based order in ASEAN and benefits all the countries that use the vital artery that is the South China Sea. The rest is bluster.”

Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, while the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam – ASEAN members – and Taiwan have their own territorial claims.

Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to territorial disputes over the South China Sea, but Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the maritime region that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

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