Since Myanmar’s February 1 coup, critics have expressed disappointment with ASEAN’s lack of action. With the special ASEAN Summit on Myanmar looming this Saturday, academics weigh in on options ASEAN has – based on its structure, history and culture – to deal with the Myanmar crisis.
An emergency ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meeting addressing the Myanmar crisis has been convened in Jakarta on Saturday April 24. The conference will be Myanmar coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s first since the February coup, amplifying the significance of the event. But already there is indication that this may not be ASEAN’s business as usual.
ASEAN’s leaders have been calling for a special summit since early April, with Brunei Darussalam’s Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin issuing a joint statement of “serious concern” about Myanmar’s coup and the subsequent Tatmadaw crackdowns at the Leaders’ Consultation. Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s administration agreed to host the summit, with the Jakarta Post triumphantly calling this Jokowi’s moment of “ASEAN leadership.”
In contrast, General Prayudh Chan O-Cha announced earlier this week that he would not be attending. Instead, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai will attend on his behalf. In a statement on April 22, the Thai Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared Thailand’s readiness to assist as “a sincere and honest broker,” even as critics questioned the Thai military’s continued ties with Myanmar’s junta, including an appearance at Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day.
The fact that the Summit is being convened at all is a significant departure from ASEAN norms. ASEAN is known for its distinctive ‘ASEAN Way’ – a form of regional diplomacy that emphasizes regional resilience and non-intervention. At its birth in 1967, both principles went hand in hand: ASEAN worked to prevent further Indonesian intervention in Singaporean and Malaysian affairs, as had occurred in 1963 and 1965, and provided a stable counterweight in the region.
Thus, the principle of non-interference governed ASEAN’s response to major developments. When Prayudh led the 2014 military coup, ASEAN’s then-chair Indonesia did not suggest a special summit, nor did ASEAN have any qualms recognizing Prayudh’s post-coup government.
However, the current crisis means ASEAN needs to rewrite its playbook. Nicholas Khoo, University of Otago Professor, highlights difficulties posed by Myanmar’s coup.
“What happens when ASEAN’s principles are in conflict with each other, as is the case with the recent developments in Myanmar? In this instance, the principle of regional resilience is undermined because ASEAN states are tied by their equally firm commitment to the non-intervention principle.”
“This longstanding conundrum has deepened with the expansion of ASEAN membership in the post-Cold War era,” Khoo points out.
As Khoo alludes to, Southeast Asian leaders faced a similar crisis in 1997 when ASEAN decided to allow Myanmar (then-Burma) to accede to full membership. Three months after Burma became an ASEAN member, the Burmese State Law and Development Council (SLORC) led a brutal crackdown against the 8888 uprising – suddenly placing ASEAN at odds with the U.N. General Assembly, which immediately condemned the Burmese military’s repressiveness. The region’s ties with the U.S. and the E.U. came under serious pressure, although ASEAN persisted in standing by Burma.
Yet, the non-intervention principle has not always won the day. In the 1980s, much was made of ASEAN’s very active interference in Cambodian affairs. Member states facilitated talks between warring factions of the Cambodia civil war between 1986 and 1988. When Hun Sen took over in a July 5, 1997, ASEAN leaders postponed Phnom Penh’s full membership. Immediately, an emergency foreign ministers’ meeting was convened on July 10 in Kuala Lumpur, where ASEAN members signaled their disapproval. Hun Sen responded contemptuously, telling ASEAN to “stay out of our internal business.” Political analysts dramatically hailed “the end of the ASEAN Way.”
As American University Professor and ASEAN expert Amitav Acharya remarks of the Cambodia incident, “While the two situations are different, it shows that there is precedent to bypass the non-intervention principle.” Acharya points to Singapore’s then-Foreign Minister Shunmugam Jayakumar argument on that occasion, that ASEAN should not condone unconstitutional changes of government. Given this, Acharya believes that ASEAN should postpone the current Myanmar meeting, and send a meeting first to talk to all sides.
The die may already be cast in terms of the Saturday summit going ahead, but ASEAN and leading member states will need to weigh the tradeoffs of the options they have before them.
A Working Group paper produced for the ASEAN summit by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that member states should seek humanitarian goals above all, working with the Tatmadaw to establish a Humanitarian Task Force which can pause the violence and funnel humanitarian aid into the country. But it will be difficult to strike the balance between helping Myanmar citizens and legitimizing the regime.
“ASEAN will need to weigh carefully when and if that international recognition of political legitimacy should be shifted,” argues Fuadi Pitsuwan, Pre-doctoral fellow at the School of Public Policy at Chiang Mai University.
“The process of the coup started on February 1st is still unfinished. The result of Min Aung Hlaing’s moves on that day is still being played out. ASEAN is betting on the winner and I am not sure if they are making the right bet.”
Ultimately, ASEAN will need to reconsider its fundamental principles as it navigates a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions in the region. According to UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews, over 737 people have been killed in coup crackdowns as of April 20, with nearly 250,000 displaced.
The Myanmar coup brings ASEAN’s identity into serious question. Only time will tell if Saturday will bring a repeat of the Burma 1997 crisis, or the bolder action of ASEAN’s 1997 Cambodia response. Prospects for regional stability will depend on ASEAN leaders making the right choice.