ASEAN has risked too much in inviting Myanmar’s junta leader to summit
23 Apr 2021|

On 24 April, the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are expected to gather in Jakarta to sit down at the table with the leader of Myanmar’s military junta, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. This would be his first overseas trip since the Tatmadaw seized power from the legitimately re-elected government led by Aung San Suy Kyi and her National League for Democracy. Meanwhile, the world has been watching with horror as the Tatmadaw kills hundreds of pro-democracy protesters and arrests thousands.

ASEAN has been criticised for its muted response to the coup and ensuing violence in Myanmar. But its stance has been determined by its norms, which often also constitute its main limitation: consensus-seeking, non-interference in domestic matters and constructive engagement. This special summit on Myanmar has been organised with goodwill and in the belief that dialogue with the Tatmadaw is better than isolating it. It also aligns with the view that, as a regional institution, ASEAN should be the first port of call for international mediation. The proponents of the summit appear to be confident that they‘ll be persuasive enough for Min Aung Hlaing to want to listen.

But that’s a dangerous assumption.

While the ‘constructive engagement’ approach has worked for ASEAN in the past, it should not be invoked to engage with those who hold power unlawfully or illegitimately. Inviting Min Aung Hlaing to the leaders’ summit gives him a false sense of legitimacy and leverage back home for continuing his brute-force campaign. Members of the ousted civilian government and other opponents of the junta recently formed a ‘national unity government’ with Aung San Suy Kyi as its nominal head. If reports that this parallel government wasn’t invited are true, the summit may do more harm than good.

If ASEAN is hoping for a peaceful resolution to this crisis, perhaps through some sort of power-sharing arrangement between the military and the unity government, inviting only a Tatmadaw representative effectively negates such a possibility. The Tatmadaw overtly disregarded Myanmar’s civilian government and denied the results of the November 2020 elections, calling for a new vote to take place. Giving Min Aung Hlaing a seat at the table seemingly rewards with international recognition a junta that overthrew a legitimate government and continues to engage in mass killing.

International pressure—including condemnation, sanctions and the cutting of commercial ties by some countries—appears to have had little effect on Min Aung Hlaing. Will soft-spoken ASEAN diplomacy be enough to convince him and the Tatmadaw to cease brutalising their own people?

ASEAN as an intergovernmental organisation has been faithful in representing the interests of its member states and respecting their governments. This ASEAN tradition meant that it didn’t criticise the 2014 coup in Thailand that brought Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to power or other issues that were considered ‘internal matters’ in other member countries even if they involved human rights abuses.

But it’s precisely because of this commitment to governmental interests that ASEAN shouldn’t validate the Tatmadaw’s claim to power. Doing so sets a dangerous precedent. It suggests that any future challenge to a legitimate government might stand not only unopposed by the regional body, but even accepted by its fellow leaders. That should be an uneasy thought for any of the Southeast Asian governments that jealously guard their own legitimacy.

ASEAN has a larger mandate—to protect peace and stability and to serve its people. According to the 1967 ASEAN Declaration, the organisation’s aims include ‘promot[ing] regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter’. ASEAN’s charter reaffirms the rule of law and states that the number one purpose of ASEAN is ‘to maintain peace, stability and further strengthen peace-oriented values in the region’. ASEAN prides itself on maintaining stability; under its watch there have been no wars among its member states. But the situation in Myanmar is quickly spiralling towards instability, risking the future of the country and posing a threat to the whole region.

ASEAN members are divided, and the pre-summit manoeuvring clearly displays that. In recent days, there have been rumours that Min Aung Hlaing may attend virtually instead of in person. Thai PM Prayut-o-Cha has reportedly bowed out and will send his deputy or foreign minister instead. Thailand’s position is arguably the most precarious among the neighbours, given the resonance that its military and post-coup government could have with the Tatmadaw, and the growing number of Burmese seeking refuge in Thailand. The absence of the leader of such an important stakeholder in the Myanmar crisis would significantly diminish the summit’s importance.

Indonesia and Singapore so far have taken more prominent roles in attempts to mediate the crisis. Indonesia, the region’s largest democracy and traditionally considered the group’s informal leader, sent its foreign minister Retno Marsudi to Bangkok for talks in an attempt at ‘shuttle diplomacy’. Singapore, Myanmar’s largest foreign direct investor, has both commercial and political interests in a return to stability, and PM Lee Hsien Loong has explicitly criticised the junta’s use of lethal force against unarmed civilians.

Vietnam, which is the chair of the UN Security Council and Southeast Asia’s only non-permanent representative on the council for 2020–21, has been restrained on the matter. This year’s ASEAN chair, Brunei, was swift in organising a joint statement on the day of the coup, but it’s really Indonesia that has taken the initiative since then, and hence is hosting the special summit instead of Brunei.

Even ASEAN members that have no direct involvement in the crisis have a self-interest in keeping Myanmar from becoming a failed state. A stable, peaceful region that is an attractive destination for investment is in everyone’s interest, as is ASEAN’s long-term goal of fostering regional integration and narrowing the development gap.

ASEAN has made some remarkable breakthroughs in the past thanks to its engagement policies and adaptive nature. It’s those characteristics that allowed it to include and involve communist Vietnam and the still junta-led Myanmar for the sake of regional coherence and economic development. ASEAN sees its engagement approach as the means to the end goal of regional progress. This approach even yielded some success with Myanmar in 2008. But the situation this time is different, primarily because of the strength and determination of the civil disobedience movement. The military will not gain the support of the Burmese people.

To be sure, no single summit could resolve this very complex crisis and the peace process was always going to be a long and challenging one. Engagement, through informal meetings such as those already conducted, is needed to ensure ASEAN has access to and communication with the Myanmar junta. But formal representation of the Tatmadaw at the ASEAN summit, without giving any concessions in return, including first and foremost a commitment to stop the bloodshed, is not constructive.

If ASEAN really wants to play an honest-broker role, it should provide a safe space for the unity government and the Tatmadaw to negotiate. Bringing the parties together for such a meeting would be difficult to achieve, but it would provide a much-needed showcase of ASEAN centrality.