Guest Column

After Standing Up to Myanmar Military, What Next for ASEAN?

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak 30 October 2021

It all came down to a choice between marginalization and irrelevance on the one hand and pragmatism and resilience on the other. At its 38th and 39th leaders’ meetings and related summits with dialogue partners, ASEAN chose to remain relevant. In an unprecedented move with far-reaching ramifications, ASEAN reduced itself to nine participating members from the normal 10, excluding Myanmar. While this bold maneuver derived from necessity rather than initiative, it provides Southeast Asia’s bloc of smaller states a small window of opportunity to regain its footing and revitalize its central role in promoting regional peace and stability in Asia.

ASEAN’s summits are prominent for engaging the major powers from outside the region in bilateral and plurilateral formats. Most important of these are the ASEAN leaders’ meetings with counterparts from China and the United States. The broader East Asia Summit also includes not just China and the US but also Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. These ASEAN-centric dialogues are one of a kind. No other regional organization or single entity anywhere has been able to convene these kinds of meetings among world leaders.

As geopolitical tensions have intensified, driven by the China-US rivalry and competition, these ASEAN-related talks have become more problematic because the big players have been at odds on a range of issues, taking their disagreements to the ASEAN fold and threatening to force Southeast Asian member states to choose sides. At issue in this ASEAN summit season is Myanmar’s coup and the ensuing civil war and regional crisis.

After dithering for nearly three months, ASEAN came up with a “five-point consensus” whose main points were to enable an ASEAN special envoy, namely Bruneian Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, to visit Myanmar and consult with the government and opposition for mediation and dialogue. Myanmar, headed by coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing under the State Administration Council (SAC), was also asked to allow ASEAN to provide humanitarian assistance to the country.

But Min Aung Hlaing effectively refused, and played brinkmanship with ASEAN: Either the Myanmar military strongman attends the ASEAN summits or Myanmar will not be represented. ASEAN even gave the junta leader a way out by convening a special foreign ministers’ meeting to offer the SAC a “non-political” representative. Yet the junta issued a statement insisting on its right of representation as it sees fit, rejecting ASEAN’s offer.

The major change from the past is that military-ruled Myanmar has become a pariah state within the region, not only around the world. When Myanmar was a global outcast in the 1990s and 2000s, ASEAN acted as insulation and intermediary between Myanmar’s rogue military regime and the outside world. But this time, Myanmar’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, has managed to alienate itself from the regional body, which has gone out of its way to take in Myanmar as a member state and buy time and help facilitate internal reforms and reopening of the country from 2011 until last February.

In dealing with Myanmar, ASEAN had its five-point consensus, including Min Aung Hlaing’s concurrence, as a bargaining tool. As world leaders from democratic countries were set to pull out in view of the SAC’s intransigence, ASEAN faced the stark choice of keeping Myanmar in and world leaders out, or the other way around. To maintain ASEAN’s role and credibility, the outcome was obvious.

But sticking to its five-point consensus and sanctioning Myanmar brings up additional challenges. ASEAN should be engaging with the civilian opposition under the National Unity Government.

Doing so would apply more pressure on the SAC to come to dialogue and explore a way out of the coup crisis. It is clear that Min Aung Hlaing and the current high command must get the boot in a workable way, but also that the Tatmadaw has to be integral and fundamental to any compromise.

The NUG and its associated oppositional offshoots have shown that it has traction, taking the Tatmadaw to task on the battlefields and corridors of international diplomacy. When the United Nations credentials committee meets next month, the NUG will have a more legitimate claim on Myanmar’s rightful multilateral representation because of ASEAN’s exclusion of Min Aung Hlaing and the SAC.

The NUG is thus central to Myanmar’s future government. ASEAN’s latest move has tilted the correlation of forces and events on the ground in favor of the NUG. ASEAN’s Myanmar crisis can only be resolved by coming up with new modalities and ways of association.

The noninterference principle no longer holds because Myanmar’s armed forces shunted governing standards and political legitimacy so low that it has alienated and undermined ASEAN in the eyes of the international community.

To be sure, ASEAN is facing its most daunting fork in the road of its 54 years of existence. The coup has come on top of other internally divisive issues driven by the US-China geostrategic tussle. When the superpowers go at it with increasing intensity, ASEAN tended to be weaker and less united in the past, as evidenced in the US-Soviet confrontation during the Cold War.

This time, ASEAN’s fracture is a result of China’s division of the bloc over the South China Sea dispute in the past decade. At the same time, the US and its allies are pressing hard by threatening to bypass ASEAN with anti-China cooperative vehicles such as the “Quad” and the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) trilateral security pact.

After regaining ground by holding summits with global leaders while keeping Myanmar’s armed forces at bay, ASEAN should tell the US and China to back off. It can step up pressure on China to agree to a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and tell China’s rivals that provocative endeavors like the Quad and AUKUS bode ill for this region.

Telling off all of the major powers in equal measure with a sustained voice will enable ASEAN to recover some of its lost role and influence in organizing and promoting peace and stability in its own neighborhood.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, is professor at the Faculty of Political Science and director of its Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.


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