ASEAN finds its voice as a military offensive looms in Myanmar
22 Oct 2021|

In a move that could usher in a new era of interventionist diplomacy—or, alternatively, represent a grudging aberration driven by realpolitik—ASEAN provided the first significant regional rebuke to Myanmar’s generals since their February coup by politely disinviting them to the upcoming ASEAN Summit.

Historically, ASEAN has been largely toothless in its reaction to human rights abuses in the region, despite shifts in its rhetoric and discourse over the past decade. With the organisation’s mostly timid and laggardly response to the latest Myanmar coup, history seemed to be repeating itself.

That changed at the emergency meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers held on 15 October. The statement released afterwards began with a discussion of the five-point consensus reached with Myanmar general and coup leader Min Aung Hlaing in April and the role of the special envoy, who had just cancelled his visit to Myanmar after being refused access to Aung San Suu Kyi and other junta opponents.

It went on to hint at Myanmar’s intransigence by ‘emphasising the need to exercise flexibility’, while noting that the situation in Myanmar was having an impact on regional security and the credibility of ASEAN itself.

The statement then mentioned—twice—the need to give Myanmar ‘space … to restore its internal affairs and return to normalcy’, which represented a strong diplomatic backhander for the military.

The coup de grâce, however, was the elevation of the exiled National Unity Government (NUG) to an equal standing with the military junta. The statement noted requests by the NUG to represent Myanmar at the meeting and then employed ASEAN’s (in)famous pursuit of consensus decision-making as a ploy to deny representation to both the NUG and the junta, instead deciding to invite a ‘non-political’ representative from Myanmar, probably a civil servant.

This outcome was not dissimilar to the recent negotiations at the UN General Assembly, where a lack of consensus over Myanmar’s representative led to the compromise of the existing, anti-junta, ambassador retaining his position. However, on that occasion the US played a strong role, whereas here the key decisions were made by ASEAN states, albeit with US support.

The opposition to junta representation was led by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who tweeted after the meeting that ‘the participation of Myanmar at the Summits should not be represented at the political level until Myanmar restore[s] its democracy through an inclusive process’.

Similar statements on the junta’s non-cooperation came from Singapore and Malaysia, and the Philippines also voiced its opposition to military representation.

These statements represent a far stronger public position in favour of democratic politics in Myanmar than ASEAN countries have previously managed.

The Myanmar military blamed the ASEAN decision on ‘foreign intervention’ by the US and EU, but responded almost immediately with an announcement that thousands of people who had engaged in anti-coup protests would either be released from prison or have their charges dropped. While many journalists and activists were released, some members of the ousted National League for Democracy were immediately rearrested.

The last time Myanmar elicited such a significant response from ASEAN was in 2005 when it was required to forgo its first opportunity to occupy the rotating chair of the organisation. In that case, however, the discussions were held behind closed doors and Myanmar fell on its sword rather than be publicly pushed.

That outcome was due to a potential boycott of the various ASEAN-related forums and summits of the time by both the US and EU if Myanmar was elevated to the chair.

In a parallel demonstration of the latent diplomatic power of the US in particular, the most recent decision may also have been prompted by the possibility of President Joe Biden boycotting the East Asia Summit, to be held a few days after ASEAN’s.

Although the general response of the West to the crisis has been to delegate responsibility to ASEAN, whose inaction until now has been lamentable, these developments demonstrate the significant diplomatic leverage that these actors have in precipitating change. Indeed, the military effectively admitted as much in its statements.

In addition to applying diplomatic pressure and safeguarding humanitarian supply chains, the main action the international community should now be taking to resolve the crisis is to provide material and diplomatic support for the NUG, and thereby the People’s Defence Forces—civilian militias established to oppose the junta—by, for instance, releasing frozen funds to the alternative government.

Arguments against this action on the basis that it will increase bloodshed and suffering in the country are undermined by the scale of the humanitarian emergency that is already unfolding.

As the days pass, however, it is becoming ever more urgent that this leverage and diplomatic power be exercised.

With the imminent end to the monsoon and the onset of the dry season, Myanmar’s military is gearing up for a major offensive against the People’s Defence Forces and the various ethnic militias across northwestern Myanmar.

There is no limit to the venality and brutality of Myanmar’s military and there is little doubt that the situation will become much grimmer before there is any improvement. But the very least the international community can do in this situation is to try to even the playing field between the junta and its opponents.