Opinion: ASEAN pussyfooting on Myanmar shows its irrelevance in 21st century geopolitics

Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, a 19-year-old supermarket worker, was only eight when Myanmar held elections for the first time and transitioned to democratic rule. This was also the case for Kyal Sin, or “Angel.” For both of them, and for many more hopefuls throughout Myanmar, the return to military rule was unacceptable.

And they have paid for those cries with bullets to their heads. 

On the other side of the globe, the Ambassador of Myanmar to the United Nations Kyaw Moe Tun dramatically appealed to the international community for help and stood in solidarity with his people, evincing the type of courage rarely shown in the face of tyranny.

He did so knowing that he may likely lose his livelihood, and that he may never be able to return to his own land so long as the junta remains in power.

These admirable stories of martyrdom and protest have rallied the people of Myanmar, particularly the youth who refuse to return to the same suffering their parents had endured. This is despite – or because of – the brutality of the Myanmar Army, or the Tatmadaw. Despite such popular revulsion, the Tamadaw still insists upon its legitimacy through violence: the unabashed willingness to maim and kill its own people in the selfish pursuit of power. 

In the diplomatic world, the international community at large responded with similar shock and strong condemnation. In the latest development, the Human Rights Council held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, where many states have called for an end to the violence. More shockingly, all fifteen members of the United Nations Security Council, including two autocracies with veto power, have unanimously backed a presidential statement that “strongly condemns the violence against peaceful protestors.” 

Both sessions and more have called upon the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to help resolve this crisis. As a regional group in which Myanmar is welcome, ASEAN is well-positioned to do so. Yet it lacks the same spine Kyaw Moe Tun and his people had in the face of such atrocities, embroiled by incoherence among its member states and hindered by its core principle of non-interference. This effectively translates to an unwillingness to face an inconvenient truth, citing non-intervention in the affairs of other member states. This held true for the Rohingya crisis, which some have called a genocide, and other various human rights violations. The message is clear: we do not want to interfere with your domestic affairs, lest you should do the same to us. And each country has their own elephants in the room.

Furthermore, as a body that makes decisions on the principle of consensus, it is very difficult and slow to release a strong statement and to take effective actions on a plethora of issues. Divergent views have thrown ASEAN into crisis, with geopolitical fissures at every turn. In particular, the coup in Myanmar reveals a dearth of solidarity: on one hand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand generally reaffirmed the non-interference principle; on the other hand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have expressed stronger concerns. It is also very important to note that Myanmar must presumably be included in the dialogue, thus thwarting any attempts at meaningful pressure. 

It is for these reasons that the ASEAN Chairman’s Statement on February 1st, right after the coup, was short, vague, and generally-worded. A month later, the Chairman’s Statement on March 2nd following the Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting is not much more effective, only expressing “concern” on the situation, and for all sides to “exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility.”

For the Myanmar people, this just goes to show how out-of-touch the statement seems to be with reality: why would you ask them, the people who have had their freedom stolen from them, and who already are protesting peacefully, to “exercise utmost restraint”? Indeed, while ASEAN may have positive developments in fostering cooperation among states, it is clear that its forte is not in the realm of regional crisis response. 

So what next? For Myanmar, the past couple of weeks have revealed a limit to what the international community can do, with empty platitudes and shows of concern from its most influential group. Even if the United Nations can finally agree to move past words into action, UN Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener has warned that the Tatmadaw will brush this off: they have said that they are used to sanctions and have survived it in the past. For ASEAN, this presents a new geopolitical test: by some miracle, will it manage to retain its “ASEAN centrality” as it claims, or will it fall out of the spotlight in Asian diplomacy?

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