The Presidency of Brunei is truly that of ASEAN
Burmese Armed Forces Chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, right, meets with Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, left, in Nay Pyi Taw last month. MYANMAR PRESS AGENCY via AFP
By default, the Brunei presidency of ASEAN has exposed the bloc’s strengths and weaknesses for all to see due to the political turmoil in the region. Throughout its 54 years of existence, ASEAN has been rebuked and belittled as an institution that only speaks the word without making a decision. Given the current environment, its success in sustaining sustainable regional peace and development over the past five decades has nonetheless become little more than a cliché.
The international community tends to forget that the existing stability has been built and nurtured through the resilience, perseverance and unwavering commitment of ASEAN members for decades. It is not something that comes out of nowhere. This is why the ASEAN survived, surprising any skeptics who underestimate the bloc. Frankly, without ASEAN, could they have something interesting to say today?
To be fair, over the past six months the so-called “Team Brunei” has done everything right, strictly adhering to the principle of non-interference and consensus. Indeed, it is an arduous process of “building trust” with all stakeholders, both inside and outside Myanmar. Harsh criticisms of the chair ignore the complexities involved. For example, the delay in appointing an ASEAN special envoy is a textbook case. Each member of Asean proposed their candidates for the presidency of Brunei to be selected. Once the names were chosen, ASEAN members could not agree on how there should be a single special envoy or a group of eminent persons.
It turned out that this selection process has dragged on for nearly three months due to lack of consensus. Brunei had originally planned to announce the names of the Asean squad in early June after a visit to Nay Pyi Taw. Therefore, the president looked for names that would be acceptable to everyone. The pressure on Brunei has been compounded by internal fighting between the Tatmadaw and armed elements of the ethnic groups and the civil disobedience movement. With the worsening of the Covid-19 pandemic and the increase in the death toll coupled with growing frustration with the perceived inertia of ASEAN, the sense of hopelessness of the people of Myanmar and the international community s ‘has grown and has become extremely hostile.
Thanks to Brunei’s respected status as a small nation without “small country syndrome” or political ambitions, it was able to resist this abusive bombardment from certain colleagues in ASEAN and civil rights communities. Indeed, Brunei embodies the true spirit of ASEAN: to stand firm and adhere to the principles of the founding fathers, without compromising the centrality of ASEAN. Externally, the Presidency has no problem engaging with all the major powers to support ASEAN’s overall efforts. The absence of defamation from major global players, including the United States, China, Russia and the EU, helps consolidate ASEAN’s role in bringing peace to Myanmar.
Since the coup, Brunei has been in communication with all stakeholders in Myanmar, including the State Administrative Council, the Government of National Unity, ethnic armed organizations, the private sector and non-governmental organizations. Formal and informal consultations with ASEAN colleagues continued with the UN Special Envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener and relevant UN agencies and humanitarian organizations.
Like it or not, Brunei’s presidency this year will be judged singularly on how Banda Seri Begawan leads the bloc in tackling the crisis in Myanmar. Therefore, in the days to come before the ASEAN annual meeting scheduled for August 2-7, under his leadership, ASEAN must come up with comprehensive and achievable terms and timelines that are acceptable to all parties involved. The bloc is ready to help with the current humanitarian crisis caused by the recent wave of the Delta variant of Covid and around 2 million people affected and displaced in conflict areas. As part of building trust, humanitarian aid will be the priority to be followed through political dialogue.
In retrospect, last year Vietnam received high marks for its effective leadership in leading a regional response to the pandemic and concluding comprehensive regional economic cooperation. But there were other crucial issues which the President also addressed well and which were not mentioned as frequently. For example, Hanoi raised the profile of ASEAN at the United Nations by briefing members of the Security Council for the first time and successfully concluding the ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Recovery Framework.
In 2019, Thailand was credited for the Asean outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which had already been canceled by the major powers. The media coverage did not address the importance of several new efforts launched by ASEAN, such as the disposal of marine debris. Each year each chair faces a myriad of issues – ASEAN is not a one-issue organization. Of course, some issues are more important than others at times. The South China Sea conflict, the US-China rivalry and economic integration are all on his agenda.
Every president has to deal with ongoing and new issues that can arise at any time, such as the great disruption caused by the pandemic and the Tatmadaw’s brutality towards his people. These two challenges have further complicated everything that the ASEAN presidency or ASEAN as a whole plans to do, without harming ASEAN at the central level and the spirit of cooperation and consultation. To proceed with any new initiative with far-reaching regional impacts, the 10 ASEAN members take some time to reach consensus. Once the decision is made, Asean cannot go back.
As a community of 654 million people, Asean is both blessed and cursed by the diversity and different dynamics of its members. At times, some of these unique characteristics collide, with ugly heads sticking out and fueling many conspiracy theories. Without a doubt, the views and positions on how ASEAN should respond to the Myanmar quagmire taken by Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia were hailed as the ideal option that should have been taken. by Asean.
Others have been derided and criticized for being supporters of the military regime, knowingly helping the military drag their feet. In the case of Thailand, the criticisms have been harshest, targeting the government for its lack of leadership, lack of compassion and lack of democratic spirit. Critics forget the constraints of Thailand given its common border of 2,401 kilometers and the presence of more than five million workers from its western neighbor. Any enthusiastic comment or cavalier action preferred by some ASEAN colleagues would immediately prevent Thailand from engaging in dialogue with the junta and end ongoing humanitarian assistance to affected people fleeing conflict inside Myanmar.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tanee Sangrat succinctly stated that Thailand does not have the luxury of distance, so it cannot be content with the situation in Myanmar. This helps explain why Thailand was unable to take the lead but remained an active collaborator behind the scenes. Humanitarian efforts have continued over the past seven weeks, although internal fighting between ethnic armed groups and the civil disobedience movement and the Tatmadaw has continued unabated. Thailand has tightened the border adjacent to the southwestern region of Myanmar.
In the face of the unpredictable situation and growing pressure from all sides, the President of Brunei shows that all members of ASEAN are truly equal in deeds and words. Indonesia can keep coming up with radical new ideas, but the largest member of the group cannot impose their views on the presidency. Likewise, Thailand cannot force Brunei to choose a diplomat appointed as ASEAN special envoy. It will be the president’s decision.
There is an urgent need for the ASEAN Chair to provide the general public with information on ASEAN’s efforts and future projects. Noting the sensitivity of the issues at stake, Brunei should also be more open with the latest updates to promote awareness and understanding of the complexities of this dilemma. At the very least, the president must keep the Burmese people informed and reassure them that the bloc is fulfilling their democratic desires and well-being. With the use of Twitter and other social media platforms, the President of ASEAN must assure the people of Myanmar that ASEAN has not abandoned them. Otherwise, anti-Asean and frustration could grow inside Myanmar among the civil disobedience movement and common people, which could hamper the bloc’s peace process efforts.