Myanmar’s junta continues to carry out gross human rights violations, including killings, rape and torture, backed by a campaign of mass detentions. But the key regional body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), continues to stick to a plan agreed in April 2021 that has palpably failed. Several ASEAN member states clearly have no interest in democracy and some seem keen to normalise military rule. Civil society has in response developed its own proposals that go much further in holding the military to account and working with democratic forces. If ASEAN is to retain any credibility, it urgently needs to listen to civil society.

The violence just keeps coming in Myanmar, under military rule since February 2021. The junta stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, with evidence of the systematic use of killings, rape, torture and other gross human rights violations in its attempt to suppress forces demanding a return to democracy.

Pro-democratic forces have increasingly allied with armed ethnic groups that have long battled for self-determination. The military is responding with airstrikes, artillery shelling and banned landmines and cluster munitions.

Over 19,000 people have been detained, with many convicted by secret military tribunals in unfair trials and given harsh sentences including the death penalty. The junta has also systematically targeted journalists and forced civil society organisations to shut down, with their leaders forced to hide or flee. The war is taking place online too, with internet shutdowns and restrictions, surveillance and the spread of disinformation and hate speech.

Even humanitarian aid is restricted. Recently the junta refused to allow in aid organisations trying to provide food, water and medicines to people left in desperate need by a devastating cyclone that killed at least 148 and destroyed thousands of homes. It’s far from the first time it’s blocked aid as a weapon of war.

As a result of these developments, in March 2023 Myanmar’s civic space was downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor to the worst category, closed.

Crises like this demand an international response. But largely standing on the sidelines while all this happens is the regional intergovernmental body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its recent summit, held in Indonesia in May, failed to produce any progress.

ASEAN’s inaction

ASEAN’s response to the coup was to issue a text called the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) in April 2021, agreed by its member states. This called for the immediate cessation of violence and constructive dialogue between all parties. ASEAN agreed to provide humanitarian help, appoint a special envoy and visit Myanmar to meet with all parties.

Civil society criticised this agreement because it recognised the role of the junta and failed to make any mention of the need to restore democracy. Even so, the junta quickly announced it had only agreed to consider, not necessarily follow, the agreement.

The unmitigated violence and human rights violations are the clearest possible sign that the 5PC isn’t working, but ASEAN has doggedly stuck to it. At its May summit, ASEAN states reiterated their support for the plan. Their final statement even praised the junta’s ‘efforts to bring peace and harmony’ in Rakhine State – even though there’s currently a case at the International Court of Justice accusing the state of Myanmar of genocide against Rakhine’s Muslim population, carried out by the same military now in power.

A major challenge is that most ASEAN states have no interest in democracy. Half of them are outright authoritarian regimes, and the other half could be characterised as democracies with flaws – sometimes serious flaws. All 10 have heavily restricted civic space. As well as Myanmar, civic space is closed in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

It wouldn’t suit such states to have a thriving democracy in their neighbourhood, which could only bring greater domestic and international pressure to follow suit. Not just in the region but globally, states that repress civil society and human rights at home typically carry the same approach into international organisations, working to limit their ability to uphold human rights commitments and scrutinise violations.

Continuing emphasis on the 5PC as the baseline consensus, however, hasn’t masked divisions among ASEAN states. Some appear to think in good faith that they can engage with the junta and at least persuade it to moderate its violence – although this increasingly flies in the face of the evidence. But others, particularly Cambodia – a one-party state led by the same prime minister since 1998 that recently banned an opposition party ahead of elections in July – seem intent on legitimising the junta.

Variable pressure has come from ASEAN’s chair, which rotates annually, alongside the office of the special envoy, appointed by the state that holds the chair. The last two chairs, Brunei Darussalam – a sultanate that last held an election in 1965 – and Cambodia, have had their turn of appointing a special envoy, and predictably little happened. Brunei’s never managed to visit the country after being refused permission to meet with democratic leaders, while Cambodia’s did visit and met with the junta. Its prime minister, Hun Sen, even visited Myanmar last year, when Cambodia chaired ASEAN. The first visit to Myanmar by a head of government since the coup, this was a move that could only be construed as conferring legitimacy.

Indonesia, the current chair, hasn’t appointed a special envoy, instead setting up an office headed by the foreign minister. So far it appears to be taking a soft approach of quiet diplomacy rather than public action.

Thailand, currently led by a pro-military government, is, like Cambodia, evidently happy to engage with the junta, without making any corresponding attempt to connect with democratic forces. While junta representatives remain banned from ASEAN summits, Thailand has recently broken ranks and invited ASEAN foreign ministers, including from Myanmar, to hold talks about reintegrating the junta’s leaders. A government that itself came to power through a coup but should now step aside following an election in which it was thoroughly defeated looks to be attempting to bolster the legitimacy of military rule. This move, widely condemned by civil society, could be ominous for both Myanmar and Thailand.

The 5PC has failed due to the fact that ASEAN has engaged with the military junta – the perpetrator of grave human rights violations with no commitment whatsoever to human rights – rather than with the legitimate representatives of Myanmar’s people, the civilian National Unity Government.


ASEAN states seem unable to move beyond the 5PC even as they act unilaterally and undermine it. But the fact that they’re formally sticking with it enables the wider international community to stand back and do little, on the basis of respecting regional leadership and giving the 5PC a chance.

The United Nations (UN) Security Council finally adopted a resolution on Myanmar in December 2022. This called for an immediate end to the violence, the release of all political prisoners and unhindered humanitarian access. But its language – a compromise to avoid permanent members China and Russia using their veto powersdidn’t go far enough in condemning systematic human rights violations and continued to emphasise the 5PC. It failed to impose sanctions such as an arms embargo, a move that would limit the military’s lethal capacity, or to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which would start turning the wheels of justice to hold the junta to account for its human rights violations.

Similarly, while a UN Human Rights Council resolution adopted in April 2023 condemned the junta’s violence, it also failed to call for sanctions such as a prohibition on the sale of aviation fuel to the junta or an arms embargo. Sanctions applied by individual democratic states so far have been patchy.

Civil society in Myanmar and the region is urging ASEAN to go further. Many organisations have joined together to develop and endorse a five-point agenda that deepens and goes beyond the 5PC. It calls for a strategy to end military violence, and airstrikes in particular, through sanctions, an arms embargo and a referral of Myanmar to the ICC. It demands ASEAN engages beyond the junta, and particularly with democratic forces including the National Unity Government – the continuing democratic government in exile – and civil society. It also urges a strengthening of the special envoy role, including an end to its annual rotation, and its engagement with the democracy movement, and a pivoting of humanitarian aid to local responders rather than the junta. ASEAN needs to take this on board and step up its action.

Voices from the frontline

Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso is executive director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA).


The junta’s nationwide crackdown has spread beyond cities into rural and ethnic minority areas, where resistance has grown. There is a climate of fear and insecurity, characterised by extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and other atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity. But ASEAN leaders have been unable to respond uniformly, and the 5PC has miserably failed to address Myanmar’s crisis.

On 11 May, despite expressing concerns over the continuing violence in Myanmar, specifically in light of the recent attack against a convoy carrying ASEAN diplomats in Myanmar on the eve of the summit, Indonesia released a statement that said that ‘the 5PC remains our main reference’. It basically ignored the calls from civil society groups and the wider international community to move beyond the 5PC.

The 5PC has failed due to the fact that ASEAN has engaged with the military junta – the perpetrator of grave human rights violations with no commitment whatsoever to human rights – rather than with the legitimate representatives of Myanmar’s people, the civilian National Unity Government.

As of today, the junta has not only failed to implement any of the plan’s provisions but has also increased its brutality against the civilian population. The deadly airstrike conducted in April was a glaring manifestation of the junta’s refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue and cooperation.

Another issue is ASEAN members’ lack of a consistent approach and political will to address the Myanmar crisis. Only a few ASEAN countries openly condemned the junta’s human rights violations, while others, such as Cambodia, even met with the junta chief and allowed the international community to interpret this approach to the crisis as recognition of the military regime.

ASEAN’s principle of non-interference has been a major obstacle to effectively addressing the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN has moved away from this principle by becoming more assertive in certain cases, such as on economic and humanitarian cooperation, but this has not been mainstreamed. 

Despite numerous challenges, civil society has remained active. It is working to ensure that Myanmar does not fall off the radar or is forgotten as a result of conflicts and emergencies erupting in other parts of the world.

International civil society and the international community must push ASEAN to immediately move away from the 5PC and embrace more robust and tangible actions to stop the military junta’s violence and atrocity crimes. They must refrain from legitimising the junta and must recognise the National Unity Government as the democratically elected government and enter into dialogue with all relevant stakeholders, cut bilateral ties, including economic ties, and impose a full arms embargo on the Myanmar armed forces, and call for suspension of the export and transport of aviation fuel to Myanmar.

They should also work closely with the UN, particularly the Security Council and Secretary-General, to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. They should set up a clear mandate for the special envoy, grounded in human rights principles, justice and accountability. The role must be full-time, lasting more than a year, and the appointed special envoy must engage with all relevant stakeholders, not just the military junta.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Mary Aileen. Read the full interview here.

A fork in the road

ASEAN’s current plan is a recipe for continuing military violence, increasingly legitimised by its neighbours’ acceptance. Ceremonial elections could well offer further fuel for this.

The junta once promised to hold elections by August, but in February, on the coup’s second anniversary, it extended the state of emergency for another six months, pushing back any vote. If and when those elections finally happen, there’s no hope of them being free or fair. In March, the junta dissolved some 40 political parties under a new registration law, including the ousted ruling party, the National League for Democracy. Election officials are among the many people held in detention and anyone convicted of a crime – which means all the political prisoners found guilty through spurious means – is barred from running.

The only purpose of any eventual fake election will be to give the junta a legitimising veneer that could be presented as a sign of progress – and some ASEAN states may be prepared to buy this. This shouldn’t be allowed to happen. ASEAN needs to listen to the voices of civil society calling for it to get its act together – and stick together – in holding the junta to account. If it doesn’t, it will keep failing not only Myanmar’s people, but all those in the region who reasonably expect that fundamental human rights should be respected and those who kill, rape and torture should face justice.


  • The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should listen to civil society’s demands for a stronger plan to end the violence and hold the Myanmar junta to account.
  • ASEAN should strengthen its special envoy role and commit to direct engagement with the democratic National Unity Government and other forces opposing the military.
  • States should step up economic sanctions on the regime, including an arms and aviation fuel embargo and sanctions on military-controlled companies, and civil society should work collectively to advocate for this.

Cover photo by Reuters/Stringer via Gallo Images