Violence in Myanmar is spreading with armed ethnic groups now confronting the Tatmadaw across different regions. 2023 saw victories by the Three Brotherhood Alliance in Shan State, the Karen National Liberation Army in the northeast and the Karen National Union in the south. Recently, the Arakan Army defeated Tatmadaw forces in the west, forcing hundreds of state security forces to flee into India.

The spread of anti-junta fighting and battlefield successes has spooked many in ASEAN. Concerned about spillover from the fighting in western Myanmar, India has begun reinforcing its border with Myanmar whilst repatriating Tatmadaw soldiers who fled into India.

Of greater interest is the shift in policy in Bangkok. Under the previous government led by former prime minister and military leader Prayut Chan-o-cha, Thailand was a ‘rogue state’ within ASEAN. Bangkok paid lip service to ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus while pushing fleeing civilians back across the border, allowing aircraft into Thai airspace to bomb anti-regime forces and openly supporting Min Aung Hlaing and his military government. 

Since assuming office, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has shifted Thai foreign policy towards Myanmar. Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara has led the diplomatic turn towards a consultative, ASEAN-based approach. This shift is in line with ASEAN Chair Laos’ wish for ‘quiet diplomacy’. 

Bangkok is now fully committed to implementing ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus and has abandoned the previous government’s policy of undermining ASEAN positions. Bangkok is insisting that the Myanmar peace process will be ‘Myanmar-led and Myanmar-owned’. These two points align with ASEAN approaches that indicate a growing consensus that Myanmar should resolve its problems internally, with ASEAN providing support. 

A regional tipping point which may bring the violence under control and hopefully to an end in 2024 is starting to emerge. Myanmar’s growing isolation is evident in its recent comments at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Luang Prabang, where it urged ‘ASEAN to accord fair and balanced treatment to Myanmar’. At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat, Myanmar was represented by Marlar Than Htike — the country’s ASEAN Permanent Secretary. This is the first time since the 2021 coup that Myanmar sent a non-political representative to high-level ASEAN meetings. 

ASEAN now has a single point man in ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar Alounkeo Kittikhoun, a seasoned diplomat who is well-versed in the cultures and nuances of Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam — who is now working with ASEAN member states collectively. This will prevent the embarrassment of having an ASEAN leader rebuffed by another ASEAN member for acting without consensus, as was the case in 2022 with former Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen.

The softer approach undertaken by the new ASEAN Chair, Laos, appears to be bearing some fruit. It remains to be seen whether this will continue.

Thailand will begin distribution of humanitarian aid along the Myanmar­–Thailand border in Mae Sot in March 2024. This will reach an estimated 20,000 people in need. But several unknowns are causing concerns. Not all ethnic armed organisations along Thailand’s frontier have endorsed the humanitarian aid processes. This indicates fracturing in the Thai approach, with the Thai military not able to exert enough influence among disparate armed groups. While Bangkok insists that humanitarian aid be processed and distributed in a non-political manner, this is rarely the case in internal civil conflicts.

The shift in policies of Myanmar’s neighbours from tacit support and disengagement to a guarded and engaged position does not augur well for generals in Naypyidaw. Naypyidaw already finds itself isolated in the international arena and it is now facing pushback from its regional allies and immediate neighbours. This, coupled with increasing internal pressure, is finally pushing the Myanmar issue to the forefront. This is not to say there are easy paths towards peace. But it appears the days of ASEAN turning a blind eye to the tragedies unfolding in Myanmar are finally narrowing.

As the turbulence in Myanmar increases in 2024, ASEAN will have to assume responsibility for regional security as it is the central node for coordination with its partners. For example, ASEAN Plus Three, ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit allow for frequent high-level diplomacy, contact and coordination with major regional and extra-regional stakeholders in the Myanmar conflict. These include ASEAN states, China, India, the European Union, Japan and the United States. 

These parties represent powerful sources of economic, international political and humanitarian aid leverage that can ease conflict and push the warring parties towards some form of cessation of hostilities. With Thailand rejoining the mainstream and ceasing its undermining of ASEAN’s position, the five original ASEAN members are now narrowing their Myanmar policies and finding common ground. 

The crisis in Myanmar will likely deteriorate in the near future as the junta struggles to maintain its grip on power. The junta is ‘hunkering down’ by enforcing its conscription law to help replenish the ranks of its faltering army leading many to flee into hiding or towards Myanmar’s neighbours. Geographically, Myanmar’s generals are more isolated with all land routes now cut off from military resupply making maritime delivery the only route left, thus raising the costs further.

While the ‘centrality’ ASEAN puts on its brand of reconciling regional security issues is now in tatters, recent internal and external shifts may see a semblance of credibility restored. Hopefully, ASEAN can finally deliver results that stabilise the situation in ASEAN’s albatross.

William J Jones is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Social Science Division at Mahidol University International College.