Hollow Diplomacy: Backlash at ASEAN’s Response to the Myanmar Crisis

Hollow Diplomacy: Backlash at ASEAN’s Response to the Myanmar Crisis

As violence between anti-coup protesters and the Tatmadaw regime in Myanmar worsens, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, remains uniquely situated to navigate towards a return to democracy. Their policy of ‘non-interference’, however, restricts the extent to which they can engage the crisis directly. The international attention and responsibility that ASEAN has accrued, with backing from international organisations and countries like the US, poses a risk to their credibility. If they cannot overcome their diplomatic limitations, ASEAN risks appearing ill-equipped to maintain regional peace and security.

Myanmar in Crisis

Mass protests have spread through Myanmar following the February 1st coup d’etat, in which commander Min Aung Hlaing seized control of the country and detained President Aung San Suu Kyi along with members of her party. The resultant protests have been the largest since the Saffron Revolution, and are primarily composed of teachers, lawyers, students, and government workers. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), struggling to assert authority, have responded to protests with violent suppression. As of July 14th, the civilian death toll has surpassed 900 casualties. As draconian efforts are met with incensed protesting, it seems neither regime nor anti-coup forces will gain a swift victory.

As the situation deteriorates, Myanmar faces the possibility of becoming a failed state. The US, UK, and EU have responded with targeted sanctions, the US has penalised generals and key state-owned enterprises, blocking assets, and business, while the EU and UK have imposed their own sanctions on individuals and economic entities. Beyond this, the international community has referred the issue to ASEAN, expecting that they are geopolitically well-situated to navigate a path towards restoration of democracy and, in extension, maintain peace and stability within the region. The regional organisation, ASEAN, comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, and Myanmar, promotes economic, political, and security cooperation among members. The ASEAN charter includes democracy, good governance, and human rights, which theoretically opposes the values of the military regime. However, ASEAN also prizes their characteristic policy of non-interference into domestic politics.

The bloc is not monolithic, and so is often divided on issues, especially regarding internal issues of member states. Therefore, while well situated in the eyes of foreign nations, their structure and competencies limit their capacity to intervene directly. They may only take action if decisions are unanimous; even a view held by a majority grouping is not actionable. However, a solution is imperative as prolonged violence may spillover and thus, ASEAN’s reputation for maintaining regional peace and security. 

The 5-Point Consensus and ASEAN’s position

The customary consensus-based decision making and policy of non-interference, along with Myanmar’s membership, complicates ASEAN’s engagement with the Myanmar Crisis. A direct response would be to engage the Tatmadaw, but suspend their membership in ASEAN to demonstrate unanimous condemnation. However, ASEAN is unlikely to abandon its ‘non-interference’ policy due to internal divisions. Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia are the three member states that have expressed democratic concerns and denounced the junta’s violence. Yet, ASEAN’s more authoritarian leaders have been less vocal, likely due to their own semi-authoritarian, or (in Thailand’s case) post-coup, governments. This contributes to a hesitancy within ASEAN to take a tougher collective stance against the Tatmadaw.

Backing from the UN, Western countries, and China adds further international pressure on ASEAN to mediate the conflict. Southeast Asian states, due to their geographic location and established diplomatic relations, have some of the greatest leverage over Myanmar. US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, in a recent meeting with ASEAN ministers, underscored their essential role in Indo-Pacific regional architecture (in human rights, freedoms, and economic prosperity in particular) and urged them to take joint action to restore democracy in Myanmar. 

During ASEAN’s emergency leaders meeting (which included the Tatmadaw), a five-point consensus was agreed upon. The terms include the cessation of violence, reconciliation through constructive dialogue, mediation of a special envoy from ASEAN, safe passage of humanitarian aid, and a visit by ASEAN’s envoy to Myanmar. The Tatmadaw would honour this in return for political dialogue and humanitarian assistance. This has opened channels for negotiation and marks a collective commitment to reconciliation. It also creates potential back channels for diplomacy between the west (having distanced themselves via sanctions) and Myanmar. However, in absence of more direct action, ASEAN’s plan is left at the mercy of the Tatmadaw honouring the consensus.

Opponents of the Coup in Myanmar losing faith in ASEAN

ASEAN’s call for the halting of violence on both sides has been interpreted as placing blame on the victims of this crisis. While ASEAN strives to remain impartial and abide by their structures, they risk losing public support with this approach.

In engaging the Tatmadaw, ASEAN has effectively left out the democratic opposition. This includes the National Unity Government (NUG), composed of remaining members of Suu Kyi’s administration and other pro-democracy figures. Public opinion has consequently worsened as many perceive that ASEAN is breathing legitimacy into the military regime through bilateral engagement. Local activists have derided this ASEAN-Junta consensus, conveying clear dissatisfaction with these compromises. Their engagement appears to alienate and insult the plight of Myanmar’s people, fuelling anger towards the bloc and threatening the credibility of the commitment to democracy in the ASEAN charter.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s junta have shown little sign of honouring the consensus, as lethal force is continuing well after the conclusion of the five-point consensus. Following the meeting, Myanmar’s State Administrative council said it would consider “constructive suggestions made by ASEAN leaders when the situation returns to stability”. Verbally signifying their commitment to reconciliation could merely be a divide and delay tactic. With signs of Tatmadaw backsliding, NUG defence minister Khin Ma Ma Myo has stated “People’s Defence Forces” have formed nationwide, and “the NUG government will call for a war at some point”- with three soldiers already killed in clashes with local militia in Magway and Sagaing regions. Thus, in spite of ASEAN’s efforts, Myanmar could teeter even closer to the possibility of civil war rather than reconciliation.

Risk Outlook

Faced with the limits of peaceful protest and few alternatives, the likelihood of people supporting armed groups and proliferating violent action is increased. Myanmar looms towards failed state status, at risk of a civil war.

Internationally, ASEAN’s credibility bears considerable risk. Unless the five-point consensus can be honoured and envoys make progress, Myanmar risks becoming an example of the hollowness of commitment in ASEAN’s charter. With the ARF coming up in August, Joe Biden and his administration may come under pressure to shun ASEAN summits if the Junta are present, whilst ASEAN may, again, risk being seen as legitimisng the Tatmadaw. Distancing from the West would deal a reputational blow to ASEAN’s values and competencies.

If ASEAN’s current approach towards the crisis continues, we can expect that the organisation will suffer damages to its reputation, appearing powerless to affect events in the region. Subsequently, external powers may play a greater role in maintaining the region’s peace and prosperity moving forward. This would diminish their credibility in maintaining regional peace and security and could impact the collective autonomy ASEAN has worked to build.

Categories: Security, Southeast Asia

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