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Myanmar’s Meaningless Five-Point Consensus

A program to move the country toward peace gathers dust, one year on.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Relatives await the release of prisoners in Myanmar.
Relatives await the release of prisoners in Myanmar.
Relatives wait in front of the Insein Prison for the release of prisoners in Yangon, Myanmar, on April 17. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at Myanmar’s political future, U.S.-China tensions over Taiwan, and more news worth following from around the world.

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Myanmar’s Empty Chair

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at Myanmar’s political future, U.S.-China tensions over Taiwan, and more news worth following from around the world.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Myanmar’s Empty Chair

When U.S. President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials sit down with their Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) counterparts on Thursday for a two-day summit, Myanmar will be absent.

The former British colony, still under military control following a February 2021 coup that put a stop to its nascent democratic institutions and detained de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has refused to send an envoy after Washington and other ASEAN nations asked for a nonaligned voice to represent the country.

Fifteen months on from the military takeover, the junta is still facing public protests as well as battles with multiple armed insurgencies. The military leadership has resorted to draconian tactics to maintain control, including imprisoning thousands of people and torching hundreds of villages in the center of the country.

While Myanmar’s junta hangs on, diplomatic attempts to change its thinking have faltered. A program agreed with fellow ASEAN nations to move the country beyond its political crisis, including pledges to begin dialogue with opposition groups and end the cycle of violence—called the five-point consensus—is now over a year old, but it has barely been implemented.

It was only last week that one pillar of the consensus, admitting humanitarian aid into the country, began to make progress as ASEAN representatives, including those from Myanmar, attended a meeting hosted in Cambodia alongside international aid organizations.

Myanmar’s lack of progress has caused rifts in the traditionally drama-free ASEAN grouping, with no clear agreement on how to encourage the junta to make good on its pledges.

A rare decision to exclude Myanmar’s military leaders from an October 2021 summit was followed by a visit to Myanmar by Cambodian leader Hun Sen in January, during which he met with junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. That meeting led to atypical public statements of disapproval from both Malaysia and Singapore for what was seen as sending the wrong message to Myanmar’s military leadership.

Groups including Human Rights Watch have called for ditching the five-point consensus and adopting a new approach. “For a year, governments around the world have stalled taking action on Myanmar by standing behind ASEAN’s hollow words—and have nothing to show for it,” the group’s acting Asia Director Elaine Pearson said in a statement. “They need to adopt strong measures to deter further atrocities and hold the military accountable, not a flimsy consensus that’s proven its futility.”

So why have ASEAN and the rest of the world allowed the five-point consensus to remain the road map for Myanmar’s future? In part because it’s politically convenient. “The reason that the U.S. and everybody else in the world basically keeps voicing support for the ASEAN five-point consensus is because it passes the buck to ASEAN, either because you don’t have better ideas or because you’re not willing to pursue things that would actually have an impact,” said Greg Poling, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bolder moves, like a declaration of support for the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), largely made up of democratically elected members of the National League for Democracy party, come with risks, as other groups claim their own levels of legitimacy.

“You’ve got this network of dozens of ethnic armed organizations who have far more guns and far more troops than the NUG commands. And they’re almost as distrustful in some cases of the NUG as they are of the Tatmadaw,” Poling said, using a term for Myanmar’s military.

Despite this wariness, the four strongest ethnic militias have so far rejected offers of peace talks from the junta, demanding that the NUG and its paramilitary arm, the People’s Defense Force. be included in any negotiations.

Human Rights Watch has called on ASEAN’s leading nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore—to present Myanmar’s military leadership with “a clear, timebound approach” to press for reform by taking moves to restrict its currency reserves and arms imports. The group has also called on Biden to push the group to abandon the “failed consensus approach” at this week’s U.S.-ASEAN Summit.

Poling isn’t convinced that this week’s summit will alter the status quo, with all sides likely to punt the problem further down the road: “I’m sure there will be a joint statement and there will be a Myanmar paragraph in there, and that paragraph is probably just going to reiterate support for the five-point consensus—in the same way that there’ll be a paragraph that says, we call for a code of conduct in the South China Sea. Both of them are equally meaningless.”


What We’re Following Today

Johnson heads north. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits both Sweden and Finland as the two Nordic countries prepare for a possible application to join the NATO alliance. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto is expected to announce his position on whether to join the alliance on Thursday, while Sweden remains on the fence amid disputes within the ruling Social Democratic Party.

Foreign Pelosi. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi engages in her own foreign-policy agenda tomorrow as she holds separate meetings with Jordanian King Abdullah II and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Draghi is fresh from a Tuesday meeting at the White House, where he and Biden discussed Ukraine and agreed in a joint statement to continue working together on “shared foreign policy challenges,” specifically referencing China and Libya.


Keep an Eye On

Some of the Americas. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro, are both unlikely to attend the Summit of the Americas, hosted by the United States in Los Angeles next month. López Obrador reiterated his position that the leaders of Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela be invited to the gathering—saying on Tuesday he would not attend if they were excluded. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has already told his staff that he plans to skip the event, although he has not yet given a reason, Reuters reports.

China-U.S. tensions. China admonished the United States over both its words and actions toward Taiwan on Tuesday on the same day senior U.S. intelligence officials gave their public assessment of China’s policy toward the island nation.

China accused the United States of supporting “Taiwan independence secessionist forces” by sending a U.S. Navy ship through the Taiwan Strait for the second time in two weeks. It also criticized the changing of language on the U.S. State Department website that had previously said the United States did not support Taiwan’s independence and acknowledged Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called the changes “a petty act of fictionalizing and hollowing out the one-China principle,” while U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the changes in the Taiwan fact sheet reflected “our rock-solid unofficial relationship with Taiwan.”


Odds and Ends

A Canadian member of parliament has apologized to his colleagues after he was caught participating in a closed parliamentary session from one of the legislature’s bathroom stalls.

As the Guardian reports, MP Shafqat Ali, a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party, was outed by an opposition party member after she studied his video background during the hybrid session.

“The member of parliament was literally using the washroom while participating in a sitting of the House of Commons, the cathedral of Canadian democracy,” Conservative leader John Brassard told Parliament after the unusual situation was revealed. “I can’t believe I actually just said those words, Madam Speaker.”

Ali said he takes the “matter extremely seriously, and I promise never to repeat this error again.”

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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