Guest Column

Bangkok Ducks ASEAN’s Myanmar Challenge

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak 23 April 2021

ASEAN’s highly anticipated “special” summit on Saturday in Jakarta on Myanmar’s crisis can be declared moot on arrival. What goes into it is likely more telling that what will come out of it. Nearly three months and more than 730 civilian deaths after Myanmar’s military coup on Feb. 1, ASEAN is still unable to address its rogue member state’s atrocities against its own people. The summit attendance foretells trends and dynamics of what might come next in Myanmar’s fast-moving and deadly events on the ground and how they will shape regional responses and global concerns.

While it is unprecedented for ASEAN to call for a leaders’ meeting to focus on a member state’s political situation, this special summit is overdue because Myanmar’s crisis is directly undermining the organization’s international credibility and relevance. It should not have taken so many weeks and so many lives lost in Myanmar for ASEAN to make concrete efforts to halt the violence.

And when it finally came together, the summit was spoiled from the start. After weeks of dithering, ASEAN’s top-level discussion should have included all 10 heads of government. But as summit day approached, doubts persisted about which and whether this or that ASEAN leader would attend. In the event, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha decided to opt out, sending Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai as substitute.

General Prayut’s decision not to join the summit for no valid reason can be seen as a dereliction of duty. Of all countries concerned, Thailand arguably holds the highest stakes in Myanmar’s near-term future. Of Myanmar’s five international borders, Thailand shares the longest, more than 2,400 km. Thailand relies on Myanmar’s natural gas imports for much of its electricity generation and migrant labor for the backbone of its economy. The confrontation between the Myanmar military (also called the Tatmadaw) and the civilian opposition, now under the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG), will likely lead to displaced persons having to cross over for shelter in Thailand.

Without Thailand’s forefront role, ASEAN’s impact on Myanmar’s crisis will be limited. Without ASEAN’s role, the international impact will be circumscribed. Already the major players from the United Nations, the United States and European countries have deferred to ASEAN to do something to ameliorate Myanmar’s dire and dangerous situation. China and Russia hold veto cards at the UN in favor of the Tatmadaw but China is not all that happy with the Tatmadaw’s putsch.

The Chinese, in fact, have reached out to the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) formed by lawmakers who were elected in last November’s election. In that poll, the coup-detained Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy trounced the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party. That leaves Russia as the only win-win geopolitical opportunist in the mix, selling weapons to the Tatmadaw and providing the military regime with major-power support.

The geopolitical realities surrounding Myanmar’s situation put the onus on ASEAN. This is why Thailand’s role is indispensable. The Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief and lead coup-maker, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, considers himself an adopted son of the late General Prem Tinsulanonda, the former Thai prime minister and president of the Privy Council. In 2012, after becoming chief of the armed forces and a decade since his own father died, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing sought tutelage from Gen. Prem, forming a father-son rapport. The senior general visited Gen. Prem regularly and flew in for the latter’s funeral services in May 2019. Shortly after the coup, the Myanmar strongman even sent a personal letter to Gen. Prayut asking for support.

With its close ties to Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw, Prime Minister Prayut and the military establishment should be able to find receptive ears among Myanmar’s ruling generals. What needs to be done is to persuade the Myanmar top brass to put a stop to the violence at once. Presumably, this is a call ASEAN will make at the special summit, with additional offers of humanitarian relief efforts and perhaps the appointment of an ASEAN envoy to find a way out of the nascent civil war. For Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, traveling to Jakarta is a calculated move. There will be upside legitimacy gains from being counted among ASEAN heads of government. At the same time, for a coup leader to confidently travel abroad so soon after seizing power suggests that his power base within the Tatmadaw’s high command must be rock-solid. If so, speculation and forecast of an eventually splintered military will be off the mark.

ASEAN’s divide over Myanmar is between member states that see what’s done as done—a fait accompli and a time to move on—and others who want a return to the status quo ante prior to Feb. 1 and a restoration of poll results and popular will. This fault line is likely to prevent far-reaching summit outcomes. To make a difference, ASEAN will need to leverage and bargain vis-à-vis Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing—with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore in the lead while others take a muted stance. Sources of leverage may include the sidelining of Myanmar owing to the Tatmadaw’s war against its people and/or recognition of the NUG. The alternative is to cave in and let the Tatmadaw have its way with its own people. The old thinking of power politics favors the fait accompli position. However, the NUG, underpinned by the CRPH, CDM (Civil Disobedience Movement) and EAOs (Ethnic Armed Organizations), has changed all that. Myanmar is in a different game that requires new thinking.

ASEAN will need to tread carefully because inviting the chief coup maker without Myanmar’s NUG could worsen the situation on the ground. The Tatmadaw may feel emboldened and more ruthlessly assertive in view of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s summit reception, whereas the NUG columns may feel betrayed and angrier. Both sides may then go at it even more violently. Thailand’s leadership should have been central to these moving parts and eventual outcomes but it is sadly at the margins.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok. He earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognized for excellence in opinion writing from the Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.


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