Is the "ASEAN way" effective in dealing with the Coup d'état in Myanmar?
On 1st February 2021, the Myanmar Military staged a coup d'état and took over the country after contending the results of the November 2020 elections. Since the coup, the Junta has imposed a curfew, banned all social gatherings, blocked the internet to counter public protests against the coup. So far, over 700 people have been killed in the military crackdown. The fallout of the violence and unrest beyond domestic borders is high, as it threatens to disrupt regional stability. This makes a collective response imperative to resolve the situation, ASEAN has come forward to encourage talks among the disputed parties in Myanmar with the expectations that such negotiations will bring peace and stability to the country, but an effective collective response from ASEAN remains missing.
By Shivangi Dikshit
On 1st February 2021, the Myanmar Military (Tatmadaw) staged a coup d'état and took over the country after contending the results of the November 2020 elections. The Tatmadaw accused the government of voter fraud without any evidences to support the claim and took over Myanmar just before the new parliament was preparing to commence its session. Although reports suggest the National League of Democracy (NLD) won the elections with a huge margin, the opposition party Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) backed by the Tatmadaw opposed the results. Tatmadaw declared a state of emergency in Myanmar and the country is now in the hands of Military Junta that has pledged to carry out elections in the country within a year, the prospects of which seem bleak. Aung San Suu Kyi, along with other prominent members of the NLD are currently under house arrest and have been charged under six cases by the Junta.
Since the coup, the Junta has imposed a curfew, banned all social gatherings, blocked the internet—all to counter public protests against the coup. So far, over 700 people have been killed in the military crackdown and the number keeps rising with every passing day. The fallout of the violence and unrest beyond domestic borders is high, as it threatens to disrupt regional stability. This makes a collective response imperative to resolve the situation, ASEAN has come forward to encourage talks among the disputed parties in Myanmar with the expectations that such negotiations will bring peace and stability to the country, but an effective collective response from ASEAN remains missing.
ASEAN meetings to deal with political unrest in Myanmar
ASEAN held the first virtual emergency meeting in March 2021, to discuss the turmoil in Myanmar. Interestingly, during his remarks Singapore's foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan warned that an ASEAN stalemate "would starkly underscore our lack of unity, and undermine our credibility and relevance as an organisation". Despite this warning, the meeting failed to find a breakthrough. Another meeting was held soon after in April, which was attended by Myanmar's Junta appointed Foreign Minister, Wunna Maung Lwin and according to the statement released from chair Brunei Darussalam a "consensus was reached" on the immediate need to end violence. ASEAN was criticized for inviting Hlaing to the meeting as it created concerns that this would give legitimacy to the Junta. There were demands from pro-democracy supporters that National Unity Government (NUG) should have also been invited to the meeting, providing all the stakeholders a platform to voice their concerns. Ironically the casualties in the military crackdown against the protesters increased, raising concerns among regional and international actors.
ASEAN remains divided over the Coup d'état
It is the responsibility of ASEAN to restore peace in Myanmar as its Charter mandates members of the bloc to maintain peace and stability in the region, promote regional cooperation, adhere to principles of democracy and constitutional government. Also, the regional actors can utilise their influence with the Junta in Myanmar to re-establish peace in the country. UN Secretary-General António Guterres also highlighted the role of ASEAN in maintaining peace in Myanmar and urged "regional actors to leverage their influence to prevent further deterioration and, ultimately, find a peaceful way out of this catastrophe." The expectations of the international community and the added threat to the regional stability pressed ASEAN to undertake measures to tackle the political disturbance in Myanmar. The crisis in Myanmar will undoubtedly impact regional security, trade and commerce, making the need for ASEAN action more immediate. Division within ASEAN over the coup d'état will directly impact its reputation and relevance in the region. Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia raised their concerns over the political unrest in Myanmar and demanded peaceful negotiations among the stakeholders to restore normalcy in the country. Cambodia and Laos as members of ASEAN have abstained from condemning the coup due to their individual interests. With Myanmar becoming the global focus of international criticism since the coup, it has drawn attention away from the recent international criticism against the rising restrictions on civil society in these countries. The Heads of Thailand and the Philippines did not attend the meeting, signaling a lack of common will within the member-states of ASEAN to condemn the violence in Myanmar. Although Thailand and the Philippines mentioned the COVID-19 crisis for skipping the summit, however, it is clear that internal politics was an important consideration on why they refrained from attending the summit. Current Thai Prime Minister Prayut, himself led a coup d'état in 2014 against the elected government, hence condemning Myanmar raises questions about his own regime's legitimacy. The government of President Duterte has been accused of human rights violations in the Philippines. Looking to avoid similar regional and international scrutiny of his own government, President Duterte referred to the coup as an "internal matter" in which his government refuses to "intervene".
The limitations of ASEAN
The unique mechanism employed by ASEAN to solve disputes has come to be known as the 'ASEAN Way' which is characterized by the strict adherence to the principle of non-interference, peaceful settlement of disputes, no use of force and decision-making through consensus. The ASEAN Charter also asserts that the member-states must abide by "the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms."
To date, the principle of non-interference and consensus-based decision-making process has taken precedence over principles such as promoting and protecting human rights and the principle of democracy and constitutional government. ASEAN remains in splits despite the clear violation of these principles in Myanmar and still fails to take joint action. Evidently, this division also comes from the fact that some members of ASEAN also violate human rights, therefore, avoid taking strict actions against Myanmar. ASEAN's collective understanding of fundamental rights is inadequate, hence it fails to implement an institutional structure that can promote human rights in the region.
ASEAN member-states have different political systems such as democracies, monarchy, communist countries and even authoritarianism in the region, therefore, it is hard to bring them together to support the establishment of democracy in Myanmar. In instances like that of Myanmar, the undemocratic and illiberal member-states of ASEAN refrain from pressurizing the Tatmadaw in Myanmar and assist in the establishment of democracy as this would instigate demand for democracy in their respective countries and disrupt their internal politics. The individual interests of members and their divergent views have restricted the capacity of ASEAN to undertake actions to control the situation in Myanmar. The members of ASEAN seem to concentrate on national interests over regional interests, which is weakening the bloc as a whole.
The Way Ahead?
It is the moment for ASEAN to reflect on its structure, however, the prospects of change in the current arrangement are lowest possible. The current structure of ASEAN allows the member-states and external partners to engage in meetings at different levels, involving the Head of States, Foreign Ministers and other state representatives. This system has resulted in the pronouncement of several documents and declarations indicating the intent of ASEAN on a particular issue. Yet, ASEAN appears to focus more on the process of engaging with its members and external partners rather than implementation and enforcement of the plans mentioned in its documents and declarations. At present, the structure of ASEAN lacks the well-timed implementation of its strategies. Therefore, to make itself effective the bloc needs to focus more on the results of its proposals along with its peaceable engagement policy.
This implies that ASEAN needs a stronger Secretariat to run the regional issues and build well-planned consensus. It will allow ASEAN to have a larger command over the regional developments, additionally, aid in maintaining the ASEAN Centrality in the region—a major objective of the bloc. The inability of the bloc to solve the conflict in Myanmar will put ASEAN Centrality at stake and damage the relations with the western states, which support democracy promotion and human rights. ASEAN is continuously making efforts to maintain its importance in the Indo-Pacific and balance the relations with the U.S. and China. Failure to bring peace in Myanmar will disturb the relations of ASEAN with the West potentially pushing it towards China.
The expectations of the international community and regional concerns will influence ASEAN and its member-states in tackling the coup and other regional issues as well. In the case of the Myanmar crisis, it is in favor of ASEAN to continue endorsing peaceful settlement in Myanmar and assure implementation of its decision by the Junta. The status of ASEAN will elevate if it succeeds in providing an equal platform to all the parties in the dispute and encourage them to initiate dialogue to restore democracy in Myanmar. The grouping has been accused in the past of not taking human rights issues seriously and lacking the political will to ensure regional stability by addressing thorny issues concerning the suppression of political and civil liberties in the individual countries. It is exhibiting the same trends in dealing with Myanmar and a continued stalemate will only diminish the diplomatic power and status of the grouping.
Shivangi Dikshit is a Research Analyst at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs. She focuses on the Political and Security Developments of the region of Southeast Asia.
Disclaimer: This article is the author's individual scholastic contribution and does not necessarily reflect the organisation's viewpoint.