Is Laos able to make a difference in the Myanmar crisis?

ISEAS academic Joanne Lin looks at the crisis in Myanmar and recommends possible strategies for Laos to move the needle on the issue, ahead of its ASEAN chairmanship next year. Namely, Laos can make use of its strong relations with China and Russia to encourage them to work and coordinate closely with ASEAN.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo passes ASEAN's hammer to Laotian Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, during the closing ceremony of the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 7 September 2023. (Willy Kurniawan/Reuters)
Indonesian President Joko Widodo passes ASEAN's hammer to Laotian Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, during the closing ceremony of the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 7 September 2023. (Willy Kurniawan/Reuters)

As Laos takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2024, the foremost question on everyone’s mind would be Laos’ ability to lead ASEAN in making progress on the Myanmar crisis. 

Speaking at the chairmanship handover ceremony on 7 September 2023 in Jakarta, Lao Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone highlighted the importance of “strengthening ASEAN’s unity and centrality for regional peace, stability and development”. While this may appear to be another piece of ASEAN rhetoric, reaffirming this is crucial as ASEAN’s unity has increasingly been put to the test on Myanmar.

Leadership on the Myanmar issue

Laos will need to find ways to bridge the diverse interests among ASEAN countries on various regional concerns. As much as Laos wants to focus on prioritising practical cooperation to advance its chairmanship theme of a more connected and resilient ASEAN, it will also need to show determination in addressing the Myanmar crisis. The final verdict on its chairmanship will be determined by how Laos handles regional flashpoints and issues.

The question is not whether Laos will carry on with ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC) but rather what approach it will undertake to implement it. Observers will be curious whether Laos will allow China to pressure ASEAN into taking a softer stance or follow the same approach that Thailand previously pursued, that is, to engage Myanmar’s State Administrative Council (SAC) on a separate track.

Laos can make use of its strong relations with China and Russia to encourage them to work and coordinate closely with ASEAN in pushing for the implementation of the 5PC, especially to reduce arms transfers to the military government.

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Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Manet (second from left) talks with Laos' Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone (first from left) as Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (second from right) and East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao (first from right) look on ahead of the ASEAN-Japan Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 6 September 2023. (Willy Kurniawan/Reuters)

Thailand and Laos (alongside China, India and Bangladesh) share borders with Myanmar. Laos’ northern Bokeo province and Myanmar’s Shan State have become a contiguous zone of organised crime, necessitating more attention on a range of cross-border issues involving illegal migrants and transnational crimes such as drug trafficking, money laundering, cyber-scams and online gambling.  

Tackling transnational crime

Refusing to work with the SAC in Myanmar may not be an option. Views among ASEAN members differ on whether constructive dialogue and engagement instead of confrontation would be the most effective means to influence positive change. The Track 1.5 meetings in March and June this year were viewed by some as showing sympathy to the SAC and bypassing ASEAN’s efforts. Laos will need to balance its own foreign policy priorities and those of other ASEAN members to get the process back on the regional track.

Addressing transnational crime is increasingly viewed as a regional priority rather than just an issue for the Mekong countries, as seen in the ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on Combating Trafficking in Persons Caused by the Abuse of Technology adopted in May 2023. Laos can work closely with ASEAN, regional countries including China and international organisations like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to enhance cooperation on this front.

Given a choice, Laos might prefer that ASEAN adhere more closely to the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states (as noted in the State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey) and less on the promotion of democracy and human rights.

Laos would enjoy many lessons in hindsight (such as the uncompromising nature of the SAC and the limits of Indonesia’s quiet diplomacy) that would allow it to craft its approaches building upon the efforts of previous ASEAN chairs, manage expectations in areas where previous chairs have been unsuccessful (including securing access to Aung San Suu Kyi), and explore new strategies to implement the 5PC. This can be reflected in the ASEAN leaders’ review and decision on the implementation of the 5PC, which is becoming an annual exercise.

Considering that efforts of previous special envoys of the ASEAN chair (including the biggest and most vocal, Indonesia) have been futile, the soon-to-be fourth special envoy, possibly Laos’ foreign minister, has his work cut out.

However, it is too early to conclude that Laos is doomed to fail.

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The seat for Myanmar's delegation remains vacant at the 18th East Asia Summit as part of the 43rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Jakarta on 7 September 2023. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP)

Despite regional and international concerns about Laos’ lack of ability and capacity to take on such a task, it is not Laos’ first time at ASEAN’s helm. It now has a chance to show that a small state can lead if it is willing to try. Laos may even enjoy the advantage of trust when it comes to the military regime in Myanmar as it will not seek draconian measures.

Laos could also facilitate — in coordination with China, Russia and India (which borders Myanmar and has been rather accommodating to the SAC) — ASEAN’s efforts to help secure the release of more political prisoners...

Laos can play a leveraging role

Examining its unique strengths and understanding the evolving developments in Myanmar will enable Laos to play a leveraging role especially vis-à-vis regional powers that have greater influence over Myanmar. Pressure from ASEAN alone is clearly insufficient to effect any changes.

Russia, China and India

First, Laos can make use of its strong relations with China and Russia to encourage them to work and coordinate closely with ASEAN in pushing for the implementation of the 5PC, especially to reduce arms transfers to the military government.

report by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar notes that Russia and China (including state-owned entities) are the top two suppliers of advanced weapons systems to Myanmar. Reducing arms trade to Myanmar could potentially reduce violence by the military (the foremost clause of the 5PC is to cease violence). As a comprehensive strategic partner and a strategic partner of ASEAN respectively, both countries would have a vested interest to work hand-in-hand with ASEAN.

Laos could also facilitate — in coordination with China, Russia and India (which borders Myanmar and has been rather accommodating to the SAC) — ASEAN’s efforts to help secure the release of more political prisoners and gain greater access to the various states and regions of Myanmar to deliver humanitarian assistance.

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This pool photograph distributed by Russian state owned agency Sputnik shows Russia's President Vladimir Putin (right) meeting with Laos' President Thongloun Sisoulith (left) on the sidelines of the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on 17 October 2023. (Sergei Guneyev/AFP)

Work plan and report card

Second, apart from leveraging Myanmar’s close partners, it would be important for Laos to translate the efforts of Indonesia into a more specific multi-year work plan or roadmap to implement the broad strokes of the 5PC. The first review and decision on the implementation of the 5PC, adopted by ASEAN leaders in November 2022, agreed to develop an implementation plan outlining concrete and measurable indicators with a specific timeline. However, such a document has not been announced to date.

Laos can work closely with Indonesia to turn the outcomes of Indonesia’s numerous engagements into action lines or activities for further tracking. Such a work plan (possibly developed as an ASEAN “troika” effort) should be a live document that incorporates input from non-state actors such as civil and humanitarian organisations and academics to ensure a people-centred approach.

The second ASEAN leaders’ review and decision adopted at the ASEAN summit in September has paved the way for the current, previous and incoming chairs of ASEAN to closely consult with one another. Laos could very well be the first chair since the 2021 coup to facilitate a report card of sorts for monitoring specific aspects of the 5PC’s implementation.

ASEAN and United Nations

Third, Laos can facilitate greater coordination between ASEAN and the United Nations (UN). The UN supports ASEAN’s 5PC and shares with ASEAN the goal of peace and stability through a Myanmar-led process and prioritising the delivery of humanitarian assistance. As the UN has extensive experience in working with local communities, ASEAN and the UN can have more regular exchanges of information on developments in Myanmar and build channels through which humanitarian aid can reach communities.

UN
Laos' Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City on 23 September 2023. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

The task of leading ASEAN on the Myanmar crisis can be daunting. However, Laos is not alone. The informal “troika” mechanism involving Indonesia and Malaysia (2025 chair) would lessen Laos’ burden of taking on the full institutional responsibilities.

Realistically, the situation in Myanmar requires a longer-term approach rather than a quick-fix solution. Laos’ ASEAN chairmanship year may thus focus efforts on delivering what is possible rather than holding onto unrealistic expectations that the SAC would act differently.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

Related: Myanmar coup and the future of geopolitics in Asia | ASEAN’s deft diplomacy with its dialogue partners