Can ASEAN Help Solve Myanmar’s Domestic Political Crisis?


In the early morning of 1 February 2021, the tanks were rolling across Yangon and Nay Pyi Daw, the main cities of Myanmar, while troops were dispersing everywhere to block the roads and traffic, while the line of communication and television were cut off. The military junta has declared a one-year of state of emergency after the national election conducted on 8 November 2020 has flimsy accused as fraud that National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi gained a huge victory against the military-backed opposition party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD’s members have been taken into custody while all power has been transferred to the military leaders and former general Myint Swe has been declared as an acting president. 

As Myanmar is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), its domestic political crisis is extending beyond its physical boundary to ASEAN as a regional institution. Since the creation of ASEAN in 1967, non-interference and consensus has been the basic framework of cooperation dubbed as the “ASEAN Way”. It has been praised an efficient and face-saving approaches that based on personal ties that are not carried out publicly. It is based on the subjective-understanding that each member has enough capabilities and strength to deal with their respective internal issue. 

However, the “ASEAN Way” has been viewed differently by the current state leaders in Southeast Asia. Some went further to claim that one should not event express opinions regarding the domestic issue of other countries, while other countries besides ASEAN members could explicitly express opinion regarding the issues. For instance, Myanmar’s military coup has been condemned by the US, Australia, Japan and other Western countries. Noticeably, the 15-member of United Nations Security Council also issued a statement called for “continue support of the democratic transition in Myanmar” and the “immediate release” of all detains. On the contrary, ASEAN as a regional institution, some of its member are refraining to express their opinions regarding the military coup except Malaysia and Indonesia, who are the founders of ASEAN and have the best democracy among ASEAN members. Brunei also show concern as it is current chair of ASEAN.

ASEAN could advocate Myanmar to respect human rights and democracy as it did in the early phase of democratization in the country. For instance, the issues of democratization process in 2003, there were an attack on the Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters on her convoy that led to the death of 70 people related to NLD while Suu Kyi was arrested. In response, ASEAN members encouraged Myanmar to relinquish its role as chair of ASEAN Ministerial Meeting 2006 (AMM) to the next-line Philippines, in the following year, ASEAN ministers made statement regarding the concern over the using of military arm forces to crack down on the Buddhist monk demonstration. ASEAN urged Myanmar to act restraint and seek political solution through national conciliations and the democratization process instead of suspended its membership or kicking it out of ASEAN. In order to restore its image internationally, Myanmar allowed more freedom of expression, as in 2011 civil societies and freedom of expression has been permitted in Myanmar as the Civilian leader backed by military came to power, Thein Sein. It was given a chance to be the chair of ASEAN in 2013 as the political reform and progress has been made in Myanmar.

In the unfolding current situation of Myanmar, that the military junta staged a coup against Suu Kyi while transferring all the power to the military leaders. It showed that ASEAN has failed to maintain the democratization process could have at least two adverse implications to ASEAN as a whole. First, there is a backwardness of democracy and human rights which cooperated in ASEAN charter of 2008. The rising of military leaders through military coup could have spill-over effect on other ASEAN members to be gambling that there are nothing more serious than the wave of condemnation in the coming day and week. As Sebastian Strangio argues, Myanmar military coup could be the consequence of no effective and timely response to the military coup in neighboring Thailand in 2019. This could lead to the possibility of military coup in other countries in Southeast Asia where the legitimate leaders could be ousted easily without military support. Secondly, the failing to maintain democratization process among its member, particularly Myanmar would appear to be an initiative that prevents ASEAN from deepening its cooperation to become the regional institution like the European Union. Thus, it still remains as the elite project. When the democratization process remains a problem, authoritarian leaders in ASEAN would try to use sovereignty as a pretext to prevent others from expressing their opinions regarding the domestic issues. Thus, democratization in each member would play a critical role that citizen can make their voices heard in ASEAN when the political institutions are democratic. Third, in the status quo, ASEAN has played an important role in bringing many countries, including the US, China, India, Australia, Japan and other key players together. However, while the rivalry between China and the US is very intense, ASEAN is vulnerable to its member’s foreign policy. Some democratic countries would move toward the US and Western countries while some authoritarian regimes would embrace toward China as it less focus on human rights and democracy. For instance, although Thailand is an ally of the US, it has in recent years shown the tendency of moving toward China after the 2019 military coup. In 2019, Thailand inked an agreement with China to buy China’s arms including sub-marine, anti-ship cruise missile, and amphibious ship. 

In this regard, ASEAN should pay more attention to democracy and human rights issue in the region, particularly the current Myanmar’s political issue. ASEAN members can still adhere to the principles of ASEAN and ASEAN Ways by encouraging Myanmar to pursue the national conciliation with regarding to the Myanmar’s national constitution and the ASEAN Charter of 2008. ASEAN chair, Brunei Darussalam, should take the lead in helping to stabilize the political issue in Myanmar as in 2008 where there were border disputes between Cambodia and Thailand. At the time, Indonesia was a chair and it had taken the opportunity by providing good office and encouraged Cambodia and Thailand to solve the issue through peaceful means rather than the exchange of bullets.

About the Author: Sokvy Rim is a fresh graduate from the Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh. He is currently an intern at Cambodian Education Forum and has interest in foreign affairs issues in Asia Pacific

Sokvy Rim

Sokvy Rim is a researcher based in Cambodia.

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