On February 1 the Myanmar military seized power from a democratically elected civilian government in what has been confirmed as a coup – detaining the de facto country leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the ruling National League of Democracy party (NLD) and announcing one year of a state of emergency. This move has been turning this South-East Asian country 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. The military used voter fraud allegation – which Myanmar’s union election commission rejected – in November 2020 election, with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party got a landslide victory over military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, to justify its action in their intention to conduct a fresh “free and fair” election. Reflecting on this recent development, what political crisis in Myanmar could mean for Association South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and how can ASEAN navigate it?
ASEAN Countries’ Stance on the Coup d’etat
With this outrageous act, the international community is watching and to its close proximity, the 9 countries of ASEAN will be monitored even more closely to the situations in Myanmar – which become a member of ASEAN since 1997. Starting with Brunei, as ASEAN Chair in 2021; the country 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’s role as an ASEAN chair and its commitment to ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint in ensuring that the countries in the region live at peace with one another respecting all members’ pledge to rely exclusively on peace processes in the settlement of conflicts.
In a similar fashion, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have all expressed their deep concern for the situation. In their collective concerns, all these countries have called forward for 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 among other things, to the principles of rule of law, good governance, and constitutional government. Notably, following the meeting between President Joko Widodo and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in Jakarta, Indonesia and Malaysia have called on ASEAN to hold a special meeting on Myanmar issue upon request to the ASEAN Chair, Brunei.
Furthermore, Thailand and Cambodia, nevertheless remain adamant on their positions of non-interference in the other member states’ “internal affairs”. Thailand – home to the most military coup in entire Southeast Asia history – chose to not interfere instead in the matter and the event was described by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan O-Cha as being “domestic issue and internal affair.” On a similar note, Cambodia also practices the principles of non-interference in a speech given by the Prime Minister Hun Sen by terming the coup as an “internal affair” and “Cambodia does not comment on the internal affairs of any country at all, either with the ASEAN framework or any other country.” Lastly, the only two Communist countries in the region, Laos and Vietnam have remained rather silent on the issue and have not commented anything on the matter as of now.
ASEAN’s Myanmar Coup Implications
Every pacifist and democratic fighter out there should not ignore the recent development in Myanmar if they are really serious about the 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. And this event has many implications on 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 the commitment and adherence to the “strengthen[ing] democracy, enhanc[ing] good governance and the rule of law” as among ASEAN’s main “purposes.” Following with Article 2 of the Charter “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.”
Furthermore, this political crisis is more likely to encourage other authoritarian-minded governments in ASEAN to follow the paths of Myanmar if there are no taking 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 in leading more coup de tat or the unwillingness to peacefully transfer their power when they lose in the 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 meeting and negotiation with its partners. Given that the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, European Union and among others have condemned or strive forward to put sanctions on the military junta regime, this will make it hard for those ASEAN partners to happily consider to seat at the same level with military-led government of Myanmar alongside with other ASEAN leaders in the negotiating table of the major Summits such as ASEAN-US Summit, East Asia Summit, and even Asia-Europe (ASEM) Summit; to name a few.
ASEAN’s Way Forward in Myanmar Issue
In the midst of this political crisis, what role does the intergovernmental organization, ASEAN, 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 engaging directly engaging with the Myanmar government in the Cyclone Nargis incident and serving as an observer in major elections, including Myanmar, through the delegation from the ASEAN Electoral Management Bodies. ASEAN should try at all cost to turn the military violence around and return the state to normalcy and a functioning democracy by becoming more proactive in resolving the crisis.
What can be said furthermore is that ASEAN will try to 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 in order to influence positive behaviour and bend the rules back towards regional interest. What we can expect from General Min Aung Hlaing is that he won’t reverse Myanmar’s economic progress or open telecommunications systems back up, but Myanmar seems likely will come under enormous pressure and sanctions from the international community in the following months giving ASEAN the chance to play a leading role in being the mediator and Myanmar, in turn, should seek the good offices of ASEAN in return.
In the meantime, an environment of deliberate “enhanced interaction” must be created with Myanmar and direct it towards positive change from all relevant and concerned parties. In the wake of this event, this will only test ASEAN’s capacity and willingness to break off from sitting on the fence and if ASEAN keeps tip-toeing around ineffectual statements that only circulate around the issue, its credibility will be put at danger and will fail to produce its image to the world as a “good global citizen.”
- Visal Chourn is a Research Fellow at Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and a sub-editor at the ASEAN-Australia Youth Strategic Youth Partnership. All views expressed are his own.
- Bunna Vann is a Research Fellow at Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and Master Student of Political Science at Jamia Milli Islamia University in New Delhi. All views expressed are his own.