The growing crisis between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Myanmar has evolved into a test case as to whether the ‘ASEAN Way’ of non-interference and quiet backroom diplomacy can remain this organization’s abiding policy. Pressure is growing from human rights bodies and member states themselves for ASEAN to assume a more active role in the ongoing conflict in Myanmar, and its relative silence has raised questions about the future of the organization. While many insist ASEAN needs to take a firmer stance to avoid being sidelined, the immense regional diversity and need for consensus-building is a strong case for ASEAN to continue the status quo of neutrality in response to such a polarizing question.
ASEAN’s recent troubles in Myanmar began in 2017 with the beginning of the Rohingya genocide, when 370,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands more turned eastward towards their ASEAN neighbors. The situation worsened in 2021, as a military junta ousted the democratically elected government in Myanmar in a coup. Myanmar faced a legitimacy crisis between this military regime and the opposing National Unity Government (NUG), which formed from ousted lawmakers. International pressure has escalated, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described the events as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” ASEAN also faced an extremely divisive issue: refugees were straining fellow ASEAN nations, and the cruel treatment of Muslims outraged the largely Muslim states, particularly Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Both external international pressure and internal demands insisted that ASEAN respond decisively.
Those calling for action stressed not only the numerous humanitarian and refugee concerns, but the potential crisis of legitimacy regarding ASEAN itself. Kavi Chongkittavorn, former special assistant to the ASEAN secretary-general, stated that “ASEAN credibility and its international standing would be severely tarnished if ASEAN remains indifferent to the Rakhine [region with large Rohingya population] crisis.” Over 150 international organizations signed an open letter demanding action in Myanmar, noting “with disappointment the failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations” and calling into question the organization’s effectiveness and purpose.
As alternative multilateral fora pick up the slack, ASEAN’s reputation becomes further weakened. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has condemned the junta’s behavior and established a commission of inquiry into failing to uphold the 1930 Forced Labor Convention, with precedent of this leading to the organization cutting ties. Critics emphasize that the passive ‘ASEAN Way’ is advancing down the path of obscurity, and that only a firmer stance against Myanmar’s atrocities would return credibility to the organization.
In fact, ASEAN has made some minor efforts against Myanmar. A few months after army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized control of Myanmar in February 2021, he was invited to an ASEAN conference in Jakarta. There, the Association proposed a “Five-Point Consensus” to bring peace to Myanmar, calling for constructive negotiations and setting reconciliatory terms such as the immediate cessation of violence. Just two days later, Myanmar’s military junta announced that ASEAN’s suggestions would only be heard “when the situation returns to stability,” and that restoring law and order remained the priority. Owing to their failure to implement the Five-Point Consensus, representatives of Myanmar’s military government were not invited to the annual ASEAN leaders’ summit in October 2021 or November 2022. While a diplomatic snub of this sort was unprecedented in this allegedly neutral organization, disinvitations have little real impact and ASEAN’s de facto failure to implement the Five Points has wounded their authority.
The picture painted of ASEAN as ineffectual and detrimentally neutral, observed most acutely in the Myanmar crisis, is a reoccurring one. Opponents of ASEAN’s behavior stress how much the organization could do given their economic integration, and therefore highlight the potential impact of ASEAN sanctions on Myanmar. They have also pointed out that ASEAN’s supposed unanimity of decision-making is more flexible than it looks, and the body could take stronger action. As international humanitarian and political pressure has mounted and the influx of refugees causes domestic strife, ASEAN member-states are increasingly unified against Myanmar. Even Cambodia, whose Prime Minister Hun Sen deflected criticism of the military regime and was the first foreign leader to visit Myanmar after the coup, has turned against the junta and continued the policy of disinvitation to ASEAN summits under their chairmanship. It is unlikely, however, that Cambodia’s decision was based on any real change of heart, and that the pressure of the West and other ASEAN members to isolate Myanmar are the real cause of this disinvitation. Nevertheless, it does suggest that ASEAN resolve against Myanmar’s military government is growing.
Another approach ASEAN could take to assume a more active role in the conflict is to recognize Aung San Suu Kyi’s NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar. There is precedent for this. In the UN General Assembly, Myanmar continues to be represented by the NUG, not the military; it is possible for ASEAN to do the same. Moreover, ASEAN could suspend Myanmar’s membership altogether, although this exclusionary proposal was shot down in a 2022 summit discussion.
However, these strategies to punish Myanmar ignore just how unwelcome such precedents would be among some fellow ASEAN states. Thailand, Laos and Cambodia have pushed back against isolating Myanmar, with Thailand emerging as the junta’s closest ASEAN ally. Despite the state’s struggle to host over 90,000 Myanmar refugees, Thailand insists on a policy of quiet diplomacy and has avoided overt criticism of the military government. Bangkok has good reason to preserve the principle of neutrality towards member states: Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha himself first came to power after a 2014 coup, and Thailand also sees deadly fighting between Buddhists and Muslims. From Bangkok’s perspective, a punitive response to Myanmar from ASEAN today could similarly be inflicted on Thailand tomorrow. Laos and Cambodia share analogous sympathies.
ASEAN members represent vastly diverging political regimes and religious majorities, from the socialist dictatorship of Vietnam to the west-leaning city-state of Singapore; from Buddhist Thailand to Muslim Indonesia, or the Christian Philippines. Holding this multifarious organization together is a challenge, and ASEAN has been successful precisely because its decisions describe the region’s lowest common denominator. This does not imply that ASEAN is ineffective; efforts towards economic integration and successfully negotiated trade agreements has prompted some ASEAN members to emerge as the fastest developing states in the world. Economic success has in turn conferred legitimacy on state leaders: “economic growth remains a central basis of political legitimacy in the ASEAN states,” as scholars Amitav and Iain Johnson wrote in Crafting Cooperation (2007).
ASEAN resists foreign interference in the area, which had so scarred the region in the 1960s. The organization also successfully ratified the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty to prevent the production or stationing of nuclear weapons among members. These are tangible successes in trade and security for which ASEAN should take pride, and testaments to the power of regional consensus-building as a means to avoid division and act for the best of the entire multi-state area. Allowing ASEAN to interfere actively with its members in violation of the backseat ‘ASEAN Way’ runs the risk of politicizing and dividing a region that has flourished through cooperation. Other bodies, such as the UN, are more suited to addressing international political disputes; politicization is encroaching into ASEAN, but for many remains unwelcome.
The Myanmar crisis is the toughest threat to ASEAN unity in modern history. Whether ASEAN’s traditional neutrality and non-interference will survive is unclear, but those who demand ASEAN take a tougher stance on Myanmar should not forget the schism this might cause between member states.
ASEAN is not the EU; it is a thinner organization that prides itself on not meddling in the affairs of its members. Its decisions usually represent the limited consensus achievable among such diverse states. This behavior is frequently presented as a recipe for failure, as in the case of Myanmar, but this perspective overlooks how heterogeneous ASEAN is: it is an association of rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian, socialist republics and monarchies. Once the door is opened for states to criticize and compel one another, ASEAN’s divisions could dissolve the organization, undoing the economic and security integration that has so far marked ASEAN’s valuable, if cautious, success.
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