Myanmar remains a member of Asean: Vivian Balakrishnan

Myanmar remains a member of ASEAN.

Tan Min-Wei | March 21, 2023, 12:27 PM

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On Mar. 20, Workers' Party MP for Hougang Dennis Tan asked Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament:

"As the second anniversary of the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus on the situation in Myanmar approaches, what is the Government’s position regarding the recent suggestion of carving out Myanmar from ASEAN."

Vivian replied in a written response:

"Myanmar remains a member of ASEAN."

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The seemingly simple answer has in fact a number of layers to it.

The point that Tan was alluding to may be a comment made by Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim during a state visit to Thailand, where he suggested that it might be necessary to "carve out Myanmar" in order to move ahead with Asean's agenda, as was reported by the Associated Press.

Myanmar's status has been in flux since the February 2021 coup by its military against the democratically elected government, which included Aung San Suu Kyi.

Other fellow Asean states were alarmed at developments, especially as a significant proportion of Myanmar's citizens refused to acquiesce to the coup, with many taking to the streets to protest, and several finding ways to go into armed resistance.

Ever since then, Myanmar has been engaged in internal conflict verging on civil war.

Five Point Consensus

Asean, together with the military government, formulated a pathway back towards some form of political normalcy, by crafting the Five Point Consensus (5PC). The 5PC calls for the end to violence and the release of political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.

While the 5PC was agreed to by the military government until now, nearly two years later as Tan notes, they have taken no significant action in implementing it.

Asean for its part has decided to bar Myanmar's political leaders, but not the country as a whole, from Asean meetings, instead requesting that the country send a non-political representative, such as the equivalent of a permanent secretary, to Asean meetings instead.

Until now, Myanmar has refused, and unoccupied chairs have been laid out at every major Asean meeting since.


Fundamentally, Asean states are caught between several competing concerns.

Vivian laid out Singapore's position during the recent Committee of Supply debate: the situation in Myanmar, while tragic, cannot be solved through foreign interference in domestic affairs; even if that interference is Asean in origin.

"Nothing that we do can solve the problem, if the key stakeholders within Myanmar society themselves are not prepared to sit down and have an honest-to-goodness conversation with each other of the sake of the future of their people."

This is a sentiment that is more forcefully held by former Ministry for Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Bilahari Kausikan, who has referred to Asean's decision to not engage with the military government as "a high horse" that Asean has "no effective plan for getting off it".

Writing in an essay published by Fulcrum, he noted that Asean's similar position is in his eyes a "failed policy", that makes it "feel good, but does no real good". Whatever happens next in Myanmar, Bilahari said, is up to the military government.

Consensus, but different ideas

A previous question on a similar topic asked at the CoS debate by Sylvia Lim asked about an event where Thailand met informally with leaders from Myanmar's military, where other Asean members attended but others didn't.

Bilahari split them into "mainland" and "maritime" Asean states, noting that two "mainland" states, Thailand and Laos, had borders with Myanmar, and in his opinion, would eventually force a split of policy in order to secure their own interest.

But maritime Asean states have different ideas in how to engage with the issue. Anwar mooting a "carving out" of Myanmar, potentially leaving an intractable problem to resolve itself, is one.

In a recent interview preceding his visit to Singapore with the Straits Times, Indonesia's president Joko Widodo said that  "that a lot of work is behind the scenes" and that Indonesia had been working on this.

What Vivian's short statement in reply to the Parliamentary question demonstrates is a simple acknowledgement that a solution to Myanmar's situation bears no easy answers in the short term.

Carving Myanmar out has the benefit of seeming the right thing to do, but relinquishes the last form of leverage the bloc has over the crisis ridden state.

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Top image from ciaomyanmar Facebook page.