Myanmar coup: A political role would be a step in the right direction for ASEAN

Myanmar coup: A political role would be a step in the right direction for ASEAN

ASEAN is becoming politicized and emerging as a champion of democracy, a commendable step in the right direction (AFP)
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Jakarta this month played host to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit and its associated meetings, which included the East Asia Summit and dialogues with partner nations. Unfortunately, the four-day event was marred by ongoing internal discord within the bloc concerning Myanmar’s military coup in 2021. This discord has allowed the junta in Myanmar to perpetuate violence and foster transnational criminal activities, casting a shadow over the proceedings.

Compounding the challenges, the absence of several prominent leaders from key ASEAN partner countries, including China’s Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden, further contributed to a sense of dampened enthusiasm during the summit.

Amid the escalating violence in Myanmar, ASEAN’s response remained limited to issuing yet another statement condemning the violence. The statement called on Myanmar’s armed forces and all relevant parties within the country to de-escalate the violence and cease targeted attacks on civilians and nonmilitary infrastructure. It also called for a return to ASEAN’s “five-point consensus” of 2021, which advocates for an end to hostilities and the opening of constructive dialogue in the ongoing civil conflict. Predictably, Myanmar’s military leaders dismissed this latest statement as “one-sided,” much like they disregarded the 2021 consensus.

One of the strongest voices for action from ASEAN was Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who emphasized the vital need for the implementation of the five points of consensus brokered by ASEAN. He pointed out that the Myanmar conflict has repercussions not only for its own population but also for neighboring countries like his own.

ASEAN’s commitment to noninterference has been evident even in the face of recent events in Myanmar

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

During his address at the leaders’ retreat held as part of the summit, he highlighted that Malaysia currently hosts more than 200,000 refugees from Myanmar. He observed that the majority of these refugees are innocent victims and noted the significant challenges in repatriating them.

The responsibility for this failure does not lie with Indonesia, which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN. Instead, the root of the problem lies within ASEAN itself — a predominantly economic and trade-focused alliance, whose member states have limited commonalities.

ASEAN has long adhered to a strict policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of its member states. This commitment to noninterference has been evident even in the face of recent events in Myanmar, where the military conducted operations against the Rohingya minority, affecting about 1 million civilians. However, this stance is now facing a critical juncture, with Myanmar at the center of the transformation.

One key factor that allowed ASEAN to maintain its traditional approach toward Myanmar during the Rohingya crisis was the fact that most refugees fled to Bangladesh, which is not a member of the organization. Nonetheless, there were exceptions, as tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees arrived by sea on the shores of ASEAN member countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. These two countries had previously raised concerns about Myanmar within ASEAN forums, but these efforts encountered resistance. Now, Indonesia is leading the way in adopting a new approach, primarily triggered by the coup in Naypyitaw.

In contrast to the outright condemnation and demands for a complete reversal of the situation voiced by the US and the EU, Indonesia has opted for a more nuanced and promising strategy. President Joko Widodo said in February he would send a top general to Myanmar in the hope of showing the junta how it can successfully transition to democracy, as it had initially promised during the coup.

Indonesia is leading the way in adopting a new approach, primarily triggered by the coup in Naypyitaw

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

This approach holds several advantages. Firstly, it merely holds the Myanmar military accountable to its own commitments. The military’s justification for the coup was “electoral irregularities” in the 2020 polls and its stated intention was to conduct a “fair” rerun of the election. The possibility of having ASEAN observers present would significantly enhance the credibility of the election compared to one conducted solely by the military, thus potentially sidestepping accusations of “political interference” in Myanmar’s internal affairs, both by Indonesia and ASEAN as a whole.

Secondly, it provides an exit strategy for the military government without requiring it to admit fault or wrongdoing. This makes it more likely that it would accept this approach, as opposed to the Western demand for it to relinquish power. It would allow the military leaders to save face — a crucial factor — and may also shield them from potential legal and constitutional consequences for orchestrating the coup. This path would enable them to step away from direct military governance in Naypyitaw without immediate fear of imprisonment once civilian government is restored.

Lastly, this move leverages the collective weight of ASEAN to exert pressure on the military government to relinquish power, potentially proving to be the most effective means to achieve this goal while ostensibly upholding the principle of noninterference.

In practice, this approach would undoubtedly be viewed as interference, since it is widely expected that fair elections would favor parties opposed to the military, primarily the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Especially if ASEAN observers are involved, calling for fair elections is, in essence, a call for an NLD government. Consequently, ASEAN is becoming politicized and emerging as a champion of democracy in Southeast Asia. While this marks a significant departure from its traditional stance, it may ultimately be viewed as a positive development.

Over time, ASEAN may explicitly acknowledge and embrace this new political role. The outcome of this initial effort remains uncertain, but it is a commendable and well-executed step in the right direction.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is director of special initiatives at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C., and the author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). X: @AzeemIbrahim
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