Burma

Crisis in Myanmar Seen Undermining ‘ASEAN Centrality’

By THEPCHAI YONG 23 March 2021

The ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which has already claimed more than 230 lives, is undermining what is known as “ASEAN centrality” and challenging the regional grouping’s policy of non-interference, a former senior Thai diplomat said Monday.

It is also putting the onus on Thailand as Myanmar’s immediate neighbor to play a role in helping to find ways to defuse the potentially explosive situation in the country, according to former foreign affairs permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow.

Speaking at a forum on Thailand’s foreign policy organized by the International Studies Center, Sihasak said the worsening situation in Myanmar should add to pressure for ASEAN to reconsider its policy of non-interference in its member countries.

“It certainly needs reinterpretation given the scale of human rights violations we are witnessing in Myanmar. The crisis should no longer be seen as internal affairs of a member country,” he said.

He encouraged ASEAN to play a more active role in helping resolve the violent situation in Myanmar, which is a member of the regional grouping. “There can certainly be room for constructive intervention,” he said.

Sihasak said bound by its non-interference policy, ASEAN is being increasingly seen as helpless in the face of the violence in Myanmar. “The image of ASEAN has been severely tarnished by its inaction… And the concept of ASEAN centrality is also being undermined, ” he said.

Sihasak cited the recent virtual meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers hosted by its current chair Brunei, which ended with a chairman’s statement that is largely seen as perfunctory. He noted that its principle of consensus often inhibits ASEAN from taking a meaningful role when it’s needed.

“Operating on the basis of consensus either provides an excuse for inaction or leads it to strive for the lowest common denominator,” said Sihasak, a seasoned diplomat who served as Thai ambassador to Paris, Tokyo and the UN mission in Geneva.

Sihasak pointed out that the recent ASEAN statement on Myanmar called on “all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint” despite the fact that the bloodshed was a result of violent crackdowns by security forces.

“And then it said ASEAN also heard some calls for the release of political detainees. Why wouldn’t ASEAN want to issue the call itself instead of saying it heard some calls?” he said.

Sihasak also said that as Myanmar’s closest neighbor, all eyes are on Thailand as to its role in the crisis. “As it is being most affected by what is going in Myanmar, Thailand has no choice but to take a lead in helping to find a way out,” he said.

Thailand and Myanmar share a common border stretching over 2,400 km. Thai authorities have already started preparing for a possible influx of Myanmar refugees in the event of more violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protests.

While some other ASEAN leaders have been vocal in their criticisms on the situation in Myanmar, Thailand has been careful in not directly disparaging the military regime, which took power in a coup in February.

In one of his few public comments on what is going in Myanmar, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai expressed Thailand’s readiness to assist Myanmar “in the pursuance of peaceful resolution for the benefit and interest of Myanmar people.”

However, he told Thai PBS World that Thailand would prefer to conduct quiet diplomacy to help Myanmar find a peaceful way out of the crisis.

This article was first published by Thai PBS.

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