In just a month, Laos is set to succeed Indonesia as the ASEAN chair for 2024, taking the helm amid ongoing challenges. Foremost among these is the unresolved crisis in Myanmar, a persistent internal issue for the bloc. 

Despite efforts by previous chairs like Brunei in 2021, Cambodia in 2022, and Indonesia in 2023, analysts remain skeptical about Laos’ ability to effectively address the situation, which has been ongoing since the 2021 military coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government.

At the 43rd ASEAN Summit’s closing ceremony in Jakarta, Indonesia, in September, Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the 2023 chair, formally handed over the position to Lao prime minister Sonexay Siphandone, giving Laos the helm for 2024.

Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, stated that although Laos will head the bloc next year, resolving the Myanmar issue will be challenging. The solution will be closely tied to cooperation in implementing the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus, which Myanmar’s military leader, senior general Min Aung Hlaing, has signed.

“If the stakeholders in Myanmar themselves do not contribute directly to finding the solution, it will be difficult. It requires all stakeholders in Myanmar to be willing, committed and honest in resolving their country’s internal crisis,” he said.

“Secondly, geopolitics and the significant role of superpowers and the international community also play a part. If different powers support opposing sides, the resolution becomes complex unless the five permanent members of the UN Security Council unify their stance on Myanmar. This unity would enable a coherent approach towards a solution,” he explained.

He added that the international community should encourage and put pressure on both sides, especially the opposition, to compel the military government towards political concessions. This would enable the opposition to participate in the solution.

Phea emphasised that ASEAN and the UN must adopt a more proactive and constructive stance on Myanmar’s situation, respecting the principle of non-interference while seeking a peaceful resolution for Myanmar’s people.

Looking ahead to 2024

Bordered by Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, Laos will chair the bloc for the third time in 2024, following its previous tenures in 2004 and 2016. The theme for Laos’ 2024 chairmanship is “Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience,” reflecting Laos’ commitment to fostering a more connected and resilient ASEAN.

Thong Mengdavid, a research supervisor at the Asian Vision Institute (AVI), stated that Laos is prepared to lead the ASEAN Summit in 2024, focusing on regional issues and economic enhancement. 

He noted that Myanmar would be a crucial topic, with Laos advocating for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement.

He highlighted that the situation in Myanmar has led to a humanitarian crisis affecting ASEAN, with people fleeing to neighbouring countries. He underscored Laos’ role in promoting solidarity and cooperation in its relations with Myanmar’s military government and ASEAN.

Ro Vannak, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, described the issue as a complex power politics and regime survival dilemma, further complicated by superpower involvement and global democratic declines.

“Laos, a small country with limited political influence, cannot resolve Myanmar’s issue on its own,” he stated.

Siphandone committed to continuing Indonesia’s efforts in building a more connected and resilient ASEAN, after receiving the chairmanship from Jokowi. 

“We will continue our collective efforts, including a stronger focus on the ASEAN community, seizing opportunities amid geopolitical and geo-economic challenges and changes,” he stated. 

He added that Laos aims to expand ASEAN’s external relations and reinforce its centrality and unity, while constructing a regional architecture for stability, peace and development within the region.

Jokowi observed the optimism among attendees during the ceremony, which bolstered hope and enthusiasm for creating a peaceful and just region. 

“Let us continue to strengthen collaboration and cooperation for a prosperous ASEAN and make the world a better place for everyone,” he stated.

During the 17th ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta on November 15, the attendees pledged full support for the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar, recalling the country’s commitment to finding a peaceful and enduring solution with ASEAN’s assistance. 

“[We] recognise the ongoing efforts of ASEAN leaders’ review and decision on the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus as agreed in Phnom Penh … on November 11, 2022, to facilitate the restoration of peace and stability and the peaceful transition to normalcy in Myanmar,” a joint statement said. 

They also reiterated the need to develop concrete, practical and measurable indicators to support the implementation of the agreement, urging all concerned parties to cease violence and exercise utmost restraint.

After assuming the ASEAN chairmanship in 2022, Former Prime Minister Hun Sen met with Min Aung Hlaing to help prevent further violence and civil war, focusing on the ceasefire and addressing the humanitarian crisis by providing impartial assistance to those in need. 

Despite facing criticism for his visit, Hun Sen asserted that the trip garnered significant support as a means to prevent loss of life.

As Laos prepares to assume leadership in approximately one month, the bloc is deeply concerned about escalating conflicts in Myanmar, particularly in the northern Shan state, leading to the displacement of civilians, including foreign nationals and citizens of ASEAN member states. 

The regional body’s foreign ministers called for the safe return of nationals caught in the conflict on November 24. 

“We urge all parties to exercise utmost restraint and immediately end all forms of violence, uphold international humanitarian law and take all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of all civilians,” they said in a joint statement. 

In preparation for Laos’ 2024 chairmanship, ASEAN secretary-general Kao Kim Hourn led a three-day visit to Laos from November 28-30. 

He held bilateral meetings with Siphandone and key cabinet ministers responsible for the bloc’s political security, economic and socio-cultural community pillars, discussing ways to provide full support and ensure the success of Laos’ upcoming role.