Myanmar Coup: What It Means for ASEAN

A poster featuring army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is displayed on a barricade as protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in front of the Central Bank of Myanmar in Yangon on February 11, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
  • Bunna Vann and Visal Chourn
  • February 13, 2021 10:46 AM

On February 1, the Myanmar military seized power from a democratically elected civilian government in what has been confirmed as a coup. It detained the de facto country leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the ruling National League of Democracy party (NLD) and announced a one-year state of emergency. This move has turned Myanmar once again into a military junta regime after nine years of democratic transition, putting the future of the country in uncertainty.

This shock move came hours before convening the first session of Myanmar’s newly elected parliament since the November 2020 election—in which State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party got a landslide victory over the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. However, the military did not accept the election result and used a voter fraud allegation, which Myanmar’s union election commission rejected, to justify its action with the intention of conducting a fresh “free and fair” election. Reflecting on this recent development, what could the political crisis in Myanmar mean for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and how can ASEAN navigate it?

ASEAN Countries’ Stance on the Coup d’Etat

In view of this outrageous act, the international community is watching and, in view of its close proximity, the nine countries of ASEAN will be monitoring even more closely the situation in Myanmar, which has been a member of ASEAN since 1997. Brunei, as ASEAN chair in 2021, urges all parties to return to ‘dialogue, reconciliation, and return to normalcy’ in Myanmar in its ASEAN chairman statement. This statement can reflect the responsibility of Brunei in its role as ASEAN chair and its commitment to the ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint by ensuring that the countries in the region live at peace with one another and respect one another.

In a similar fashion, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have all expressed their deep concern about the situation. In their collective concerns, all these countries have called on Myanmar to exercise self-restraint and come back to the negotiating table, maintaining dialogue and advocating for peace and stability through legal mechanisms. Furthermore, they asked that all relevant parties remain calm, vigilant, adhering to the principles of the rule of law, good governance and constitutional government. Notably, following the meeting between [Indonesia] President Joko Widodo and [Malaysia] Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in Jakarta, Indonesia and Malaysia have called on ASEAN to hold a special meeting on the Myanmar issue upon request to the ASEAN Chair Brunei.

Thailand and Cambodia, nevertheless, remain adamant regarding their position of non-interference in the other member states’ “internal affairs.” Thailand—home to the highest number of military coups in the entire Southeast Asia history—chose not to interfere in this matter and the event was described by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan O-Cha as being a “domestic issue and internal affair.” Likewise, Cambodia also adhered to the principle of non-interference in a speech given by Prime Minister Hun Sen who termed the coup as an “internal affair” and stated that “Cambodia does not comment on the internal affairs of any country at all, either within the ASEAN framework or any other country.” Interestingly, the only two communist countries in the region, Laos and Vietnam, have remained silent on the issue and not commented on the matter as of now.

Implications of Myanmar Coup on ASEAN

Every pacifist and democratic fighter out there should not ignore the recent development in Myanmar if they are really serious about peace and stability of the region. For starters, ASEAN does not have a history of taking coercive actions on purely internal political issues, with only non-coercive and low-degree intervention for democracy enforcement being the case. Moreover, this event has many implications for ASEAN politically and diplomatically.

Politically, the political development in Myanmar has weakened the ASEAN Charter that was signed in 2008 with Article 1 of the charter calling forth commitment and adherence to “strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law” as among ASEAN’s main purposes. Article 2 requires “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.”

This political crisis is more likely to encourage other authoritarian-minded governments in ASEAN to follow the path of Myanmar if there is no taking of concrete actions and strong responses from the international community. Due to the fact that the bloc has diverse political systems and there is a high trend of authoritarian turns in the region, this can provide leverage for those dictator-minded leaders to follow the Myanmar example, leading to more coups d’état or the unwillingness to peacefully transfer their power when they lose an election, thereby cementing their power and destabilizing the region further.

Diplomatically, this military coup will offset the smooth functioning of diplomacy and the operations within ASEAN to conduct meetings and negotiations with its partners. Given that the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and the European Union have condemned the coup and considered sanctions on the military junta regime, this will make it hard for those ASEAN partners to happily consider sitting at the same level as the military-led government of Myanmar alongside other ASEAN leaders at the negotiating table of the major summits such as the ASEAN-US Summit, the East Asia Summit and even the Asia-Europe (ASEM) Summit, to name a few.

The Way Forward for ASEAN

In the midst of this political crisis, what role does ASEAN as an intergovernmental organization play? Despite the complexities in responding to the issue, ASEAN has tried in the past to mediate conflicts and coordinate all relevant partners back to the negotiating table by directly engaging with the Myanmar government in the Cyclone Nargis incident and serving as an observer in major elections in Myanmar through the delegation of the ASEAN Electoral Management Bodies. ASEAN should try at all costs to turn the military violence around and return Myanmar to normalcy and a functioning democracy by becoming more proactive in resolving the crisis.

ASEAN should use the principle of consensus to avoid upsetting any one party, and this is a disappointing attitude if one calculates carefully the damage that this coup will pose on the democratization process and stability in the region. What can be done effectively is the method of collective peer pressure to influence positive behavior and bend the rules back towards regional interests. What we can expect from General Min Aung Hlaing is that he will not reverse Myanmar’s economic progress or open telecommunications systems back up, but Myanmar seems likely to come under enormous pressure and sanctions from the international community in the following months, giving ASEAN the chance to play a leading role as a good mediator between parties in the conflict, and Myanmar, in turn, should seek the good offices of ASEAN in return.

In short, an environment of deliberate “enhanced interaction” must be created with Myanmar and direct it towards positive change with all relevant and concerned parties. In the wake of this event, this will only test ASEAN’s capacity and willingness to break from sitting on the fence and, if ASEAN keeps tiptoeing around ineffectual statements that circulate around the issue, its credibility will be put in jeopardy and ASEAN will fail to project its image to the world as a catalyst for regional and global peace.

Bunna Vann is a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and a Master Student of Political Science at Jamia Milli Islamia University in New Delhi.  All views expressed are his own.

Visal Chourn is a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and a sub-editor at the ASEAN-Australia Youth Strategic Youth Partnership. All views expressed are his own.

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