Myanmar and ASEAN: Resolve Under Test Again
Prospects of the situation in Myanmar are grim: the death toll has towered to 500 in the two months since the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s National Army, took over in February 2021. Violence from the armed forces towards protesters has only gotten worse and the current situation is dangerously volatile.
The UN Special Envoy has warned of further escalation in the ensuing days. The government in exile, composed of members of the civilian-elected and ousted National League for Democracy (CRPH), is now seeking support from the multiple armed-ethnic groups. In a bid to lure them into alliance, the CRPH has recently declared Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution void, one which allows the military to retain a significant degree of control of the government. On the other hand, the Three Brotherhood Alliance, which includes the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, released a statement calling out the brutality of the military. These events added to the clampdown exerted by the Tatmadaw armed forces, which may converge into a full-fledged civil war uniting anti-coup protesters and some armed ethnic groups into a front against the Military Junta. In the meantime, civilian lives remain at risk and many are fleeing to neighbouring countries such as India and Thailand.
Responses from the international community have varied in emphasis, ranging from sanctions to sole condemnations. However, the military junta has paid no heed to any of these messages, nor have they budged as a result of sanctions. However given the pivotal role of ASEAN for Myanmar, the organization’s bland reaction is surprising.
ASEAN has had a lukewarm reaction to the events so far, issuing a statement on March 2 which notably fails to mention the word “coup” or the Junta’s brutality. On that day, member states voiced their views individually as well. The four most democratic states of the organisation, namely Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, made a series of assertive statements. Brunei, this year’s ASEAN chair, kept the tone neutral while Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand avoided condemnation of the military’s actions.
The neutral and non-interventionist principles, coupled with varying regime types of member states, is one explanation for ASEAN’s ant
The non-intervention and consensus foundational principles coupled with the type of regime each member state may be one of the explanatory factors of ASEAN’s apathetic response.
ASEAN is deeply rooted in sovereignty and autonomy, which in practice translates into peaceful means for settling disputes, non-interference in domestic affairs, and regional autonomy. The ‘ASEAN way’, a term coined to refer to ASEAN’s method of diplomacy, consists in organizational minimalism, thereby allowing for informal meetings to assure flexibility and the participation of all diverse members, non-interference coupled with quiet diplomacy, the avoidance of public criticism of fellow members, and decision-making through efforts to generate consensus. This conceptualization follows from a pattern of behaviour, but it does not mean it is always adhered to in practice. In fact, this practice has been subjected to much change in recent years – for example, in the institutionalization of meetings - and the shared fear of the other member states, one of the prompts of the organization, has dwindled.
When it comes to a joint resolution, however, these ideas influence the decision-making process and its results. The need to reach a consensus, as in the case of other comparable organizations, may stymie swift action. On the flip side, however, fostering an outcome that states will more likely comply with given the consensus that has to be reached in the first place.
Another factor influencing this outcome seems to be the regime type of the member states. The presence of diverse regimes, across a spectrum of more to less democratic, has a deep impact on what kind of consensus may arise from the talks. Of note are the agreements on human rights issues in member countries, certainly a weak spot in ASEAN’s record as demonstrated in their response to the Rohingya crisis.
The different regimes, in their attempt at a consensus-based approach, seem to be hindering effective responses beyond simply occupying rhetorical stances, which is certainly important but prove insufficient. Decision-making based on consensus is harder to achieve on human rights when some states do not adhere to the standards themselves. The current Prime Minister of Thailand, for example, was formerly leader of the military junta that ruled the country from 2014 to 2019, and Cambodia is under a government where political dissent and free press are targeted.
The sharp deterioration in the human rights record, and international pressure towards ASEAN to take a firmer stance, has placed the credibility of the organization on the line. Singapore appears to be taking the lead in spurring its bloc members into action, calling for a Summit to delve into Myanmar and possible solutions. However, one thing is for sure: more than just ASEAN will be needed if the situation in Myanmar is to be reverted.