Guest Column

ASEAN Members on Myanmar: Agreeing to Disagree

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 3 March 2021

It is clear that the ASEAN foreign ministers hold different views on the situation in Myanmar and this has attracted global condemnation. However, when they joined up and aired their disagreements, they agreed to disagree. For the time being, that will be the modus operandi. But this platitude will not last very long. Depending on the junta’s behavior, ASEAN will make necessary adjustments as it responds to the level of pressure and measures on its peer.

Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have been vocal about the military junta in Naypyitaw for obvious reasons. The island republic’s sharp criticisms were well timed and internationally exposed, reflecting its political vision for Myanmar. Singapore still retains its leadership role in ASEAN in setting forth the grouping’s trajectory. In tandem, both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Minister Vivien Balakrishnan have done well in outlining their positions against Myanmar and earned praise for their democratic aspirations.

Singapore has a major stake in Myanmar. Lee was right when he told the BBC that the amount of Singapore-Myanmar trade was small. However, the country’s investment inside the country is a different matter – it is the highest among foreign investors. More importantly, the financial transactions between the two countries have facilitated the latter’s economic progress, linking it to the international economy. Singapore urged ASEAN’s external partners “not to impose broad-based economic sanctions that will harm the ordinary people of Myanmar”.

Malaysia has always been the maverick within ASEAN, voicing views that highlight the country’s leading voice in the Muslim world. Kuala Lumpur’s attitude towards the Rohingya over the years has been a prime example. The coup in Myanmar provides Malaysia with an opportunity to call for a stronger ASEAN response as well as international engagement. Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein came up with quite a few proposals for ASEAN and Myanmar to adopt including the establishment of an ASEAN Troika on the situation in Myanmar.

Outwardly, the Indonesian foreign minister was more subtle in her approach to the crisis. Indonesia being the bloc’s biggest country—and Retno Marsudi being the only woman among her ASEAN peers—she is mindful of her significance to the grouping’s diplomatic legacy. She has used her shuttle diplomacy to create a space for dialogue on the crisis. That much is clear. Retno’s media team is pretty savvy and keeps the anxious media informed of her latest moves. At the informal meeting, she was forceful, much to the chagrin of her ASEAN colleagues, recommending the steps the junta needs to take to win back regional and international support.

Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia would like to see the UN engage through its special envoy, Christine Schraner Burgener. She should be allowed into Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned. They also called for the release of those retained during the coup.

It is also clear that within continental Southeast Asia, the countries that share a common border with Myanmar have little to say, knowing full well their limits. Therefore, it is better not to say anything that could jeopardize their future bonds. They have to coexist with the new junta, just as they did in the past.

Thailand’s attitude and statements were typical, urging peace and calm, a halt to violence, and reconciliation. With memories of its own 2014 coup still fresh, Thailand has been extremely cautious. Myanmar’s eastern neighbor has lots to learn from the Thais. But the junta in Naypyitaw will not behave the same way as the Thais, who have experienced more than 19 coups since 1932.

Besides sharing a porous, 2,401-km border, the cross-border movement of people, trade and commerce is substantial. These elements dictate Thailand’s overall responses – pragmatic and realistic. Any unrest inside Myanmar would have devastating effects on Thailand, especially when the whole world is still under serious threat from COVID-19.

Since Myanmar’s opening up a decade ago, Thailand has built up excellent ties with both the Tatmadaw and the ruling party, the National League for Democracy. At the Tuesday meeting, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai stated that Thailand supports a negotiated peaceful and sustainable settlement of the situation in Myanmar. “For this objective to be achieved, the winner-take-all approach and mindset is not a winnable option. The history of Myanmar should be heeded, and the wellbeing of the 54 million citizens of Myanmar should be the underlying guiding principle”.

Both Vietnam and Laos called on the parties involved to refrain from and avoid all violent activities, guarantee public safety and organize dialogue as soon as possible. It must be noted here that only Laotian Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith addressed his Myanmar colleague, U Wunna Maung Lwin, as foreign minister.

Brunei Darussalam, as the ASEAN chair, must be credited for spending time preparing the statement that would sum up the bloc’s discussions. The first draft put forward by Indonesia and the one Singapore asserted on the day of the meeting were very strong. The chair was patient to get all contributions while issuing the statement on time.

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