ASEAN’s Dilemma: Balancing Interests And Principles In Dealing With Myanmar – Analysis


The ASEAN summit is important for Southeast Asia because it engages with other states in the region. Over the years, the ASEAN summit decisions have fostered economic growth and development in the region, which has a combined population of over 650 million and a GDP of over $3 trillion. With that, the 2023 ASEAN Summit was held in Jakarta, Indonesia, on September 5-7, 2023, under the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth”. At this summit, ASEAN countries expanded their economic opportunities and partnerships.

However, the 2023 ASEAN summit was quite different from the previous one. During the 2023 summit, ASEAN countries showed concern about the civil strife and human rights violations in Myanmar. This was also the first time that ASEAN countries have combined to put diplomatic pressure on Myanmar’s junta. Indonesia has been the most active and vocal ASEAN member in addressing the Myanmar crisis. It proposed and hosted the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting in April 2021, where the Five-Point Consensus was adopted. Indonesia urged the junta to stop the violence, release political prisoners, and engage in dialogue with all parties. It has also expressed support for a global arms embargo on Myanmar.

Malaysia has also been outspoken in criticizing the junta and calling for a peaceful resolution. It has also advocated for the protection of Rohingya refugees, who have fled from Myanmar to Malaysia and other countries. Singapore has taken a more pragmatic and balanced approach to the Myanmar crisis. Singapore has maintained its economic ties with Myanmar but has also suspended some military cooperation and imposed targeted sanctions on some junta officials. The Philippines has suspended defense engagements with Myanmar but has not imposed any sanctions or cut off trade relations.

Thailand has been more sympathetic and accommodating to the junta due to its close ties and shared interests with Myanmar. It has refrained from condemning the coup or calling it a coup and instead emphasized the need for stability and non-interference. It has also hosted an informal meeting with some ASEAN members and the junta’s foreign minister, which was seen as undermining ASEAN’s unity and credibility. Cambodia has also been supportive of the junta, citing its respect for Myanmar’s sovereignty. It has opposed any foreign intervention or pressure on Myanmar and called for dialogue within the framework of ASEAN. Laos has been relatively silent and passive in the Myanmar crisis, following its policy of neutrality.

Vietnam has taken a cautious and moderate position on the Myanmar crisis, balancing its interests and principles. It has also supported ASEAN’s role in finding a peaceful solution but has not interfered in Myanmar’s internal affairs.

The ASEAN 2023 summit was an important event for Myanmar, as it was the first time that the bloc discussed the situation in the country since the military coup in February 2021. However, the summit did not result in any significant breakthroughs or pressure on the junta to stop the violence and restore democracy. ASEAN operates on the principle of consensus, which means that all 10 member states have to agree on any decision or action.

ASEAN also adheres to the principle of non-interference, which means that it respects the sovereignty and internal affairs of each member state. This limits ASEAN’s ability to intervene in Myanmar’s crisis, as it does not want to be seen as meddling or imposing its will on Myanmar. ASEAN has no enforcement mechanism or sanctions power to compel Myanmar to comply with its demands or recommendations. The only leverage that ASEAN has is its moral authority and diplomatic influence, which are not enough to sway the junta, which has shown little regard for international opinion or pressure. ASEAN faces competition from other actors, such as China, India, Japan, and the United States, who have their interests and agendas in Myanmar. These actors may undermine ASEAN’s efforts by pursuing bilateral engagements with the junta or offering incentives or alternatives that are more appealing to Myanmar.

Currently, the trade value of Myanmar’s trade with the ASEAN countries has exceeded $10.3 billion in the nine months until December of the 2022–2023 fiscal year, according to the country’s Ministry of Commerce. Major ASEAN countries are Myanmar’s major trading partners, including Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The main export items are agricultural and fishery products and minerals. Myanmar’s trade with Indonesia recorded an estimated value of over $936.5 million, with Vietnam at over $609.47 million, the Philippines at over $122.74 million, Cambodia at over $25.7 million, trade with Laos at over $1.3 million, and Brunei at over $0.31 million. Therefore, it is unlikely that ASEAN can pressure Myanmar to stop the civil war with the junta government unless there is a significant change in the economic dynamics within Myanmar or among ASEAN members. ASEAN’s role may be more effective in facilitating dialogue and humanitarian assistance than imposing solutions or sanctions.

The inaction of ASEAN 2023 towards Myanmar has further complicated the situation for Rohingyas. The Rohingyas have endured decades of persecution and displacement at the hands of the military and are in a dire situation in Myanmar. The Rohingya have faced several waves of violence and ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar army and local mobs, especially since 2017, which have killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya who remain in Myanmar are confined to camps or villages, where they face severe restrictions on their movement, livelihoods, health care, and education. The Rohingya have received little support or protection from the international community, which has failed to hold the Myanmar authorities accountable for their crimes against humanity and genocide.

The 2021 military coup has further worsened the situation, as the junta has cracked down on all forms of dissent and opposition across the country. Therefore, the Rohingya people are in a desperate and hopeless situation, with no prospects of returning to their homes or obtaining justice. They are trapped in a cycle of violence, displacement, and deprivation, with no end in sight.

However, Myanmar has rejected the ASEAN 2023 summit statement condemning violence as one-sided. The junta claimed that the statement was not objective and biased, and it seized power in a coup in February 2021. Myanmar also complained that it was not represented at the ASEAN summit. Myanmar accused ASEAN nations of interfering in its internal affairs and ignoring its views and voices. Myanmar has further withdrawn from its scheduled chairmanship of ASEAN in 2026, which is a blow to its international legitimacy. Therefore, it is unlikely that ASEAN can address the issue of Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar effectively unless there is a significant change in the political dynamics within Myanmar or among ASEAN members. However, this also depends on the willingness and cooperation of the junta and other stakeholders in Myanmar.

In conclusion, ASEAN has no enforcement mechanism or sanctions power to compel Myanmar to comply with its demands or recommendations. The only leverage that ASEAN has is its moral authority and diplomatic influence, which are not enough to sway the junta, which has shown little regard for international opinion or pressure.

Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma

Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Associate at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD). She is a research analyst in security studies. She obtained her Master's and Bachelor's in International Relations from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *