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Lao PDR is Ready for ASEAN Challenges

26 December 2023

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By Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: Starting Jan 1, Lao PDR will officially take over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This comes at a critical time as uncertainty increases regionally and globally. The growing competition among major powers has already had chilling effects on the region and beyond, never mind the ongoing issues of climate change and supply chain crises. Taking the helm for the third time, Vientiane will have to be proactive due to the urgency of such challenges.

Although the handover of the ASEAN chair took place in early September, Vientiane has taken time to crystalise its 2024 chairmanship, and so far, it has proceeded responsibly without any hyperbole. Although information about what Laos would like to do is still limited, one can see a more consultative and collaborative style, aka the ASEAN way, for all things the chair plans to advance.

Meanwhile, the international community will closely scrutinise Laos's attitude and demeanour. Under the theme "ASEAN: Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience", Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith recently outlined nine priority areas in his speech in Singapore.

They cover the whole gamut of the ASEAN community and its external partners. These are integrating and connecting economies; forging an inclusive and sustainable future; transforming for a digital future; promoting the role of ASEAN culture and the arts for inclusion and sustainability; developing strategic plans to implement the ASEAN Community Vision 2045; promoting ASEAN centrality; promoting environmental cooperation; women and children; and health.

Mr Saleumxay said all these priorities and deliverables would be finalised when the ASEAN foreign ministers meet for the first time on Jan 28-29 at a retreat in Luang Prabang. Under Laos, all things about connectivity will be explored with no stones left unturned.

As a landlocked nation, Vientiane understands how important connectivity is to its national development. Connectivity can turn the landlocked into a land-linked hub in mainland Southeast Asia --something that serves as a foundation for both the chair's pathway and ASEAN's agenda.

However, the biggest challenge for the Lao chair is existential threats from regional conflicts and global security disorders. No one can predict what forms these menaces will take. At this juncture, the Lao chair must be ready to deal with any provocation.

Top on the list is the Myanmar crisis. Mr Saleumxay has been frank, saying it would take a miracle to solve this problem. As the chair, Laos wants to ascertain that some substantive progress on the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus (5PC) has been achieved. A few months after the coup in February 2021, ASEAN proposed the 5PC to Myanmar's junta, but it received no positive response amid fighting between the State Administrative Council (SAC) and various resistance groups. Since then, all sides have claimed victories as civilian casualties kept mounting.

In retrospect, under their chairmanships, Brunei Darussalam and Cambodia should be given credit as they were able to lay some groundwork outlined in the ASEAN peace plan through direct contacts with Nay Pyi Taw. The outcome might not be the breakthrough that ASEAN and its observers had hoped for, but the implementation of the 5PC was pushed forward. That said, except for the immediate cessation of the conflict and the start of a dialogue among the conflicting parties, ASEAN has been able to touch bases with the SAC as part of 5PC's peace plan. The next step is for the ASEAN chair and members, as well as the bloc's dialogue partners, to bring all of the ASEAN initiatives to fruition.

Progress on the humanitarian assistance plan is notable as all stakeholders realise how horrible the humanitarian situation has become. Because conflicting parties still believe they can win, they keep escalating the fighting.

Recently, the SAC escalated combined ground assaults and air raids against armed ethnic organisations and the People's Defence Forces, especially in the North and Northwestern regions. Due to the latest attacks, over 1.5 million civilians have been internally displaced. More can be expected if fighting intensifies and drags on.

That helps explain why Thailand has insisted on communicating with the SAC to ensure that ASEAN's peace plan can and must be implemented. With a common border of 2,401 kilometres, Thailand is the most affected by any potential influx of civilians fleeing the violence. Now, ASEAN colleagues have acknowledged that Bangkok's approach has been proper and necessary. So far, the outcome has positively affected the peace process as a building block for future inclusive dialogues and much-needed sustainable humanitarian efforts.

It must be said equivocally here that all alleged Thai misconduct in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis in Myanmar were groundless, especially comments blaming Bangkok for weakening the bloc's solidarity.

Under the Indonesian chair, the focus was on punishing the SAC due to its brutality and non-democratic and non-cooperative attitude towards the ASEAN plan. Therefore, Jakarta's attempts to push the peace process forward by engaging all stakeholders, including ethnic armed organiaations, the National Unity Government and the People's Defence Forces, have yet to yield results.

More than officials would like to admit, the trust level between Jakarta and the SAC is insufficient to make tangible progress. Contacts with the Nay Pyi Taw were found wanting as the narratives of the days tended to isolate the military regime.

Under Lao's chairmanship, there will be a more discreet approach minus megaphone diplomacy. The veteran diplomat, Alounkeo Kittikhoun, former Minister to the Prime Minister's Office, has been named as the new ASEAN special envoy on Myanmar, which is a good indicator that Laos takes its role and Myanmar issue seriously.

Beyond Myanmar, the nuclearisation in North Korea could become a hot and unexpected issue on the ASEAN agenda if Pyongyang continues its tests of intercontinental missiles. During its 2016 chairmanship, Laos had to deal with North Korea, which then started a series of nuclear tests, firing rockets and missiles, prompting the ASEAN members to "share concerns" over such incidents.

Other issues, such as the South China Sea dispute, the Ukraine-Russia war, and the Middle East conflict, are less stressful. On the maritime conflict, the working group on the code of conduct has progressed with the conclusion of the third reading of the single text. The fourth reading is forthcoming. Both ASEAN and China made clear that they want an effective and substantive code of conduct that they would respect and follow.

It will be Mr Saleumxay's second time chairing ASEAN. Two years after he served as a Vice Foreign minister, he was promoted to Foreign Minister in early 2016. His lengthy experience in networking with ASEAN colleagues will add value to promoting the Lao role in ASEAN in 2024, which also has been designated as the Lao Tourism year.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in Bangkok PostClick here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

Photo Credit: Bangkok Post

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