Since its inception in 1967, ASEAN has survived a myriad of challenges—some it has passed with flying colors, others less so.
However, the biggest existential threat to ASEAN today comes from within its own family. After 21 months of a genteel, wait-and-see approach to Myanmar’s quagmire, the so-called ASEAN Way has reared its ugly head on the bloc, forcing its members to come to grips with its Achilles’ heel. To stay relevant and credible, ASEAN must now use sticks to deal with an unruly family member.
It is well known that when ASEAN is faced with any issues, whether political, economic or social, it will do whatever it takes to ensure the issue is settled in a peaceful manner without upsetting individual members of the bloc. The approach worked pretty well for over five decades, but the situation in Myanmar is calling for stronger punitive measures, as well as a shake-up in the bloc’s institutional arrangements.
Myanmar’s consistent refusal to implement the five-point consensus (5PC) in full has dismayed its ASEAN neighbors. Since the document was adopted in April last year following lengthy consultations, the junta has been dragging its feet when it comes to implementing the peace plan, citing the ongoing conflict between its military and various local resistance groups.
Over the past 10 months, Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn, representing the ASEAN chair, has twice managed to meet with some stakeholders in the conflict, including representatives of political parties, non-governmental organizations, and specialized UN agencies. The ASEAN special envoy has yet to meet with detained State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or National Unity Government (NUG) representatives.
On the ground, the distribution of humanitarian assistance to affected Myanmar citizens in areas stricken by conflict has been slow at best, mostly because of the strict restrictions on movement imposed by the State Administrative Council, as the junta is officially known. To date, only a small amount of basic aid, which includes much-needed medical supplies, has been successfully delivered to the conflict zones along the Thai-Myanmar border. Without the SAC’s cooperation, ASEAN’s Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Center) won’t be able to carry out its mandate in the region.
Back in August, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote to junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, urging him to cooperate with ASEAN and its special envoy in order to bring the situation in Myanmar back to normal. But after five weeks of waiting, Phnom Penh received no response. In June, Hun Sen asked Myanmar’s junta to reconsider the death sentences imposed on activists opposed to them, in a letter addressed to Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Ignoring the appeal, the junta went ahead and hanged three activists and a lawmaker in July.
Due to the lack of positive engagement from Naypyitaw, Prak Sokhonn’s third trip has been postponed. The snub also explains why the ASEAN chair decided to bar Myanmar’s military chief from attending the upcoming ASEAN summits scheduled for next month.
Needless to say, Cambodia was forced to make the difficult decision as the military junta failed to accept the goodwill of the ASEAN chair.
In the letter to Min Aung Hlaing, Hun Sen was candid, echoing his past appeals which the junta ignored altogether—which included pleas to stop the executions of four activists that attracted harsh global condemnation, including from ASEAN. The chair reiterated that the executions gave those who question ASEAN’s approach towards Myanmar a reason to argue that the world can’t positively engage with Naypyitaw.
Hun Sen, who called Myanmar’s senior general a brother, also reiterated to the junta leader that some key ASEAN members have already put forward at least three proposals to punish Myanmar. The first will see Myanmar disinvited from all ASEAN ministerial meetings. For the time being, Myanmar representatives can still attend some ASEAN ministerial meetings. In the future, they will be barred from all ministerial meetings. In addition, Malaysia and Indonesia have urged ASEAN to formally engage with the NUG. The two countries also have plans to allow the NUG to set up a representative office in their capitals. Finally, there are growing calls within ASEAN to impose economic sanctions on Myanmar.
For his part, Hun Sen reiterated in the letter that Cambodia is committed to helping Myanmar return to normalcy through engagement in accordance with the 5PC and ASEAN Charter. In return, the ASEAN chair hopes that the junta leader “will also offer genuine and effective cooperation, so that ASEAN can become a united family again”.
In a related development, the ASEAN foreign ministers will hold a special meeting on Oct 27, ahead of the ASEAN summits, to discuss the status of Myanmar in ASEAN and review the progress of the 5PC. The ministers plan to invoke Article 7 of the ASEAN Charter and come up with a list of measures (that their leaders will later decide on) to reprimand Myanmar for its failure to implement the 5PC. ASEAN ministers have never convened to discuss such measures since the bloc was founded.
Article 7 of the ASEAN Charter outlines the role and importance of the ASEAN Summit as the supreme policy-making body of the regional group. One of its most important roles is “to address emergency situations affecting ASEAN by taking appropriate actions”. Exactly 30 days from now, the SAC has the opportunity to rejoin the ASEAN family or cut itself loose. It will be up to the junta to ensure that there is “substantial progress” regarding the 5PC in the days ahead.
Obviously, any decision to further downgrade Myanmar’s status would further isolate the nation, which would cause concerns among ASEAN members with which Myanmar shares a common border.
Thailand has played a key role in communicating with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), despite the existing difficulties. Discretely, the Thai government is working hard to convince Myanmar to abide by the 5PC. After he resumed the premiership last week, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha wants to make sure that the rest of his tenure will be remembered for his peace-making efforts and economic sustainability. Myanmar is one of his top priorities.
Judging from the chair’s appeals over the past 10 months, ASEAN has gone the extra mile to persuade the SAC to stay within the ASEAN course. Hun Sen has repeatedly appealed to the junta leader, saying that as a family, “we should openly and candidly exchange views and share ideas with a genuine intention to do what is best for our family”. These words, it seems, have fallen on deaf ears.
Indonesia, as the incoming ASEAN chair, will be bolder and won’t hesitate to take the bull by the horns. Jakarta is also more willing to impose harsher punitive measures against a pariah member to preserve ASEAN relevance and credibility in the eyes of the international community. After all, as the world’s third-largest democracy and a member of the Group of 20, the new ASEAN chair’s reputation is at stake.
This story first appeared in The Bangkok Post.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist covering regional affairs.