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Myanmar Crisis

ASEAN picks Brunei's Yusof as its special envoy to Myanmar

Communique promises 'full access to all parties' but many harbor doubts

Brunei's Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Yusof, pictured speaking at the United Nations, will serve as ASEAN's special envoy to Myanmar.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has finally named Brunei's second foreign minister, Erywan Yusof, as the regional grouping's special envoy to crisis-wracked Myanmar.

Yusof will be tasked with mediating the political unrest that has gripped the country since the military seized power on Feb. 1, ousting the elected National League for Democracy government of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.

A source in the Tatmadaw, the Burmese armed forces, told Nikkei Asia that Myanmar has "accepted" the selection.

In a joint communique released Wednesday, two days after a fraught five-hour online ASEAN foreign ministers meeting, the 10-member bloc said it "welcomed the appointment by the ASEAN Chair for the Minister of Foreign Affairs II of Brunei Darussalam to be the Special Envoy."

Yusof's work in Myanmar will include "building trust and confidence with full access to all parties concerned and providing a clear timeline on the implementation of the five-point consensus," the communique said, referring to a broad agreement reached at a special ASEAN leaders' summit in Jakarta on April 24.

The consensus called for constructive dialogue toward a peaceful solution and the appointment of a special envoy, among other measures. But progress has been slow despite the urgings of ASEAN members like Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore to expedite the process, as well as of others further afield.

In Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the head of state, is also foreign minister, and his deputy foreign minister, Yusof, attends ASEAN ministerial meetings, including Monday's. Brunei holds the rotating ASEAN chair this year.

Yusof is "a very experienced ASEAN hand" and is "an excellent choice," Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Nikkei. "But I hope ASEAN's friends and partners will not burden him with unrealistic expectations and by second guessing his every move. His mission is difficult enough."

But Kobsak Chutikul, a retired Thai ambassador who was been watching developments in Myanmar closely, has been exasperated by ASEAN's slow reaction and was underwhelmed by Yusof's belated appointment.

"ASEAN has been consistently behind the curve on the crisis in Myanmar," Kobsak told Nikkei. "It has taken three months to add a title to someone who already occupies the ASEAN chair and is supposed to have been leading diplomatic efforts all along. It is like a chief executive being given the additional title of managing director."

Kobsak was also dismayed that the communique failed to address the most important issue in ASEAN-Myanmar relations at present: the COVID-19 crisis in Myanmar, which threatens the region.

"The situation in Myanmar has morphed into a humanitarian and public health crisis, but ASEAN -- with constant prodding from outside powers -- has remained fixated on appointing its special envoy and the five-points reached consensually three months ago -- and that was in response to a crisis that began six months ago."

Indeed, the appointment of the envoy topped the agenda during Monday's discussions -- held a day after the leader of the military regime, Senior Gen. Ming Aung Hlaing, named himself prime minister while reiterating a pledge to hold elections by 2023.

According to the joint communique, the members expressed "concern" over the situation in the country. There were also calls for the release of political detainees, including foreign nationals.

"In the future, Myanmar must cooperate with ASEAN because the success of the special envoy is Myanmar's success in getting out of the multi-layered crisis from politics to the economy, plus the pandemic," said Sidharto Suryodipuro, director-general of ASEAN cooperation in Indonesia's Foreign Ministry. "We all want, including Myanmar, for the special envoy to be successful."

What has yet to emerge clearly is whether Yusof will be supported in a troika plus one from Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia, which was the ASEAN working plan last week, according to diplomatic sources in Bangkok. Indonesia and Thailand are leading the diplomatic initiative, and Cambodia will replace Brunei as ASEAN chair for the year after October. Singapore and Malaysia issued strong statements in February after the coup, but have lowered their profiles slightly since.

"Neither Thailand nor Indonesia want to be left out of this, and nobody thinks Brunei has the capacity to do very much alone -- although it does have a high opinion of itself as the only really neutral country in the region," a seasoned regional observer said.

"It's been a messy and acrimonious process that has created a lot of division in ASEAN but at the end of the day it may produce the team of envoys they were aiming at from the beginning," Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director of the Swiss-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, told Nikkei.

"But then there is the issue of what they can actually do, and the key concern is access. Will they be able to speak to all stakeholders? That is the critical problem," he said.

Even now, with the ASEAN communique released and accepted, the Tatmadaw source speaking anonymously told Nikkei: "I cannot say when the envoy would visit Myanmar so far."

Additional reporting by Ismi Damayanti.

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