Guest Column

Some Sobering Truths About ASEAN and Myanmar

By Bertil Lintner 1 July 2021

The relative openness that Myanmar enjoyed from 2011 until the coup this year is not the only casualty of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab. The other is what remains of the credibility of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. After the leaders of bloc members Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines condemned the lethal violence unleashed since the coup and called for the release of political prisoners, the regional grouping sent two Bruneian officials—Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi—to Myanmar, where they did little more than have a friendly chat with junta representatives.

A press release uploaded on the official website of the ASEAN Secretariat, which was later removed, mentioned the assumed government titles of junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and others who were present at the get-together, which amounted to giving de facto ASEAN recognition to the coup makers and their bloody crackdown. Hardly surprisingly, angry Yangon residents burned the ASEAN flag during subsequent protests in Myanmar’s former capital.

Even so, some foreign countries have expressed their support for ASEAN’s failed attempt at finding a solution to Myanmar’s crisis. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement on June 3 that her country would not impose sanctions on Myanmar’s junta because “it is not our view that they would advance our interests and our interest in supporting the ASEAN-led solution and the ASEAN efforts that are being made.” In a BBC interview two weeks after the coup, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the way forward is a dialogue with the coup makers under “guidance of ASEAN.” Even the European Union (EU), which has imposed sanctions on the coup makers, said in a statement on April 30 that it “stands ready to support ASEAN, its Chair, its Secretary General and the Special Envoy in facilitating a constructive dialogue with all key stakeholders with a view to bringing Myanmar/Burma back to its democratic path.”

But it is a serious mistake to expect ASEAN to lead anything, or even to provide “guidance”, with regard to developments in one of its member states. ASEAN’s two guiding principles—noninterference and consensus—make any such move impossible. There is also a gross misunderstanding of what ASEAN is and represents. It is by no means a Southeast Asian equivalent of the EU, but rather a loose gathering of 10 mostly undemocratic regimes that would not, even if it could, promote democracy in Myanmar or any one of its 10 member states.

Vietnam and Laos are communist party-ruled dictatorships and Cambodia is ruled by an autocratic regime that has shown no interest in adhering to democratic principles. Brunei is an absolute monarchy. Malaysia has wavered between oppression of dissidents and periods of more openness, Singapore is not known for respect of dissident views, and, in Thailand, the military has staged several coups against democratically elected governments. The Philippines has democratic institutions but its president, Rodrigo Duterte, is accused by the chief prosecutor of The Hague-based International Criminal Court of crimes against humanity during a deadly drugs crackdown. Several thousand suspected drug users and dealers have been killed in extrajudicial executions since he assumed the presidency in 2016, and many of those were urban poor and youths who were believed to be innocent. And then, of course, there is Myanmar.

That leaves Indonesia, the only country in the region that appears to be a reasonably well-functioning democracy, and one where critical voices against ASEAN’s debacle in Myanmar have been heard. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi even canceled a trip to Myanmar in February because such a visit would legitimize the coup. On June 9, after the disastrous June visits by the Bruneian diplomats, Jakarta Post editor Kornelius Purba wrote in an op-ed: “ASEAN is now becoming the laughing stock in the eyes of the international community because of its failing to address the plights of the Myanmar people but also because it has fallen into the trap of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.” He got the recognition that he wanted and promised nothing other than that “order, stability and peace” had to be restored in Myanmar before any other steps could be taken.

A look at the history of ASEAN would also help explain why it has become a grouping characterized by indecision and ineffectiveness. It was created on Aug. 8, 1967 when the foreign ministers of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines signed a declaration in Bangkok stating that its basic principles should be “cooperation, amity, and non-interference.” Its “founding fathers”, as they are called in the revisionist history on ASEAN’s official website, never had a “vision” of a bloc “that would include all the countries of Southeast Asia.”

In reality, ASEAN was a product of the Cold—and often not-so-cold—War in Asia and, as such, motivated by a common fear of communism. Malaysia had just been formed after experiencing a bloody civil war between communist guerillas and British troops. Malaya had become independent in 1957 and, in 1963, it merged with Singapore, Sarawak and British North Borneo (which became Sabah) to become Malaysia, a move that was done to prevent Singapore from falling into communism. In the Philippines, the government struggled to reintegrate former Hukbalahap, or communist, militants who had been active throughout the 1950s. Conflicts between the Indonesian military and the PKI, or Partai Komunis Indonesia, had led to mass killings of suspected communists and others in 1965-66 and the seizure of power by General Suharto in March 1967.

Meetings were held and, economically, the member states began to prosper in the 1970s. But the main issue that held the bloc together and gave it a new sense of purpose was the communist victories in Indochina in 1975 and, more specifically, the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia in December 1978-January 1979. Paradoxically, the leaders of the ousted, genocidal Khmer Rouge regime found shelter in Thailand, which together with other ASEAN members also helped build up a noncommunist, anti-Vietnamese resistance in Cambodia. Vietnam was the main enemy and its enemies were ASEAN’s friends. In 1985, Brunei became the sixth member of ASEAN, and its foreign policy did not differ from those of other member states.

Then came a peace process initiated by Indonesia which led to the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia and, somewhat surprisingly, Vietnam joining ASEAN in July 1995. Vietnam’s interest in joining the bloc was promoted by a desire to develop its economy by expanding trade with the rest of Southeast Asia but, more precisely, because its old allies, the Soviet Union and the communist states in Eastern Europe, had collapsed in the early 1990s. Hanoi needed to belong to a new family of nations to strengthen its position vis-à-vis its northern archenemy, China.

Laos and Myanmar joined in July 1997. Myanmar’s membership was controversial because it was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship, which caused serious strains in ASEAN’s relationship with the EU. Cambodia should also have joined in 1997, but its membership was deferred because of a coup that took place that year in which Co-Prime Minister Hun Sen ousted the other co-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. That coup, which claimed the lives of at least 32 people and prompted the flight into exile of many of Norodom Ranariddh’s supporters, paved the way for the autocratic rule of Hun Sen, still Cambodia’s prime minister. In 1999, Cambodia finally became ASEAN’s 10th member.

The outcome of this tangled history is today’s hotchpotch of nations, which has managed to establish some degree of economic cooperation and organizes exchanges in the fields of sports and music. But ASEAN’s adherence to non-interference and consensus has shown that it is impotent when it comes to solving internal matters and bilateral disputes as well as addressing regional security issues. ASEAN never made its position clear on the long freedom struggle in East Timor because it was considered an “internal affair” of Indonesia, and it has failed to address numerous border disputes between member nations such as those between Cambodia and Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah and adjacent islands.

In 2008-2011, the Thai and Cambodian militaries periodically clashed at the Preah Vihear temple on the border—which the Thais claim and call Khao Phra Wihan—resulting in death and injuries on both sides. And then there are militants from predominantly Muslim areas in southern Thailand who are enjoying sanctuaries in Malaysia across the border. ASEAN has also been unable to articulate a common policy on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In fact, it remains deeply divided between countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, which have sided with China—and Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, which have challenged China’s claims.

An attempt to create a more cohesive grouping of nations was made in 2007, when a common charter was adopted which, in theory, would provide the bloc with a legal status and institutional framework. In 2012, ASEAN even adopted a human rights declaration, but that has changed little; dissidents in several member states are still being arrested and sentenced solely for their political beliefs.

The reluctance of ASEAN to push for change in Myanmar is also, no doubt, promoted by a desire not to jeopardize economic interests. Singapore, for instance, is a major investor and trading partner while Thailand is heavily dependent on the importation of natural gas from Myanmar. Vietnamese conglomerates have entered into partnership with military-affiliated Myanmar construction and telecom companies.

So how could ASEAN possibly play any constructive role in ending the bloodshed in Myanmar, securing the release of political prisoners and reestablishing a more open society? More likely, the Myanmar junta will continue to use ASEAN to gain acceptability in the region and perhaps even beyond. The bitter truth is that Myanmar’s future lies only in the hands of its people. No one, and certainly not ASEAN, will come to their rescue. If anything, the Myanmar crisis has forced ASEAN’s far-from-democratic member states to show what they really stand for.

Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades.

You may also like these stories:

Five Months After Coup, What Has Myanmar Junta Chief Accomplished?

Myanmar Junta Frees Political Prisoners and Journalists

Myanmar Regime Charges Three Priests After Peace Prayer