Lack of action over Myanmar coup an indictment on ASEAN
17 Mar 2021|

What does it take, one wonders, for ASEAN to take action against one of its member states? Not genocide, it seems, or a military coup, or the gunning down of peaceful protesters.

According to ASEAN’s charter, one of the purposes of the regional organisation is to ‘strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms’. In 2012 ASEAN adopted a Human Rights Declaration, reaffirming its commitment to respecting and promoting ‘human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance’.

Scholars of Southeast Asian politics generally agree that there’s little point reciting these commitments, because ASEAN member states never really believed in them anyway. The adoption of human rights commitments was seen by ASEAN as a necessary step towards attaining legitimacy as a regional organisation.

But still, one would think there might be a tipping point, a point at which human rights violations and disregard for democratic principles become impossible to ignore, for a regional organisation supposedly aspiring to achieve a ‘rules-based … ASEAN Community, where our peoples enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms’.

My colleague Sarah Teitt and I have written that that tipping point may have been reached in 2017–18, when reports emerged of Rohingya villages being razed by the Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw) and civilians being shot as they attempted to flee. And if not then, then in 2018, when the UN fact-finding mission released a report concluding that there was sufficient evidence to warrant senior members of the Tatmadaw being investigated and prosecuted for genocide. And if not then, then in 2020 when the International Court of Justice ordered the government of Myanmar to take steps to avert the ‘real and imminent risk’ of genocide facing the Rohingya people still in Rakhine state.

It seems we were wrong, though, because as the genocide case proceeds through the international justice system, ASEAN is yet to issue a single statement even using the word Rohingya, let alone acknowledging the occurrence of human rights atrocities.

Perhaps, then, there’s no human-rights-related tipping point, no point at which ASEAN will decide enough is enough and take a stand in defence of human rights in its own region.

But if human rights concerns will never suffice to prompt ASEAN to act, then concern for its centrality—ASEAN’s status as the lead player in the maintenance of regional peace and security—surely must.

Last month’s coup in Myanmar has been vehemently condemned around the world. The UN special envoy to Myanmar has called for a reversal of the ‘impermissible situation’ and for ‘all collective and bilateral channels’ of influence to be exhausted. The UN secretary-general has expressed ‘deep concern’ and ‘call[ed] on member states collectively and bilaterally to exercise influence’. The G7 issued a statement condemning the coup, and numerous states have imposed sanctions.

ASEAN, for its part, issued a statement reiterating the importance of ‘political stability in ASEAN member states’, and ‘encourag[ing] the pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy’. One almost wonders why it bothered.

As Aaron Connolly wrote recently for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, ASEAN is able to wield significant influence in the region because ‘great powers accept its position at the heart of the regional institutional architecture. In practice, this means that these powers allow ASEAN to convene and chair major diplomatic summits, shaping the debates at these meetings in ways congenial to the bloc’s interests along the way.’

This is how ASEAN ‘centrality’ is manifested.

As described by Indonesia’s former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa: ‘At critical junctures in ASEAN’s journey … the association has seized the initiative; providing leadership and demonstrating resourcefulness at a time of uncertainties, with concrete and transformative policies. All throughout … the countries outside ASEAN deferred to it because ASEAN has asserted and earned its position of centrality.’

ASEAN’s centrality is unlikely to endure if those same ‘great powers’ that have respected ASEAN’s role in convening diplomatic forums refuse to recognise the incumbent regime in one of its member states. Those great powers presumably wouldn’t abandon ASEAN altogether, such as by resigning their status as ASEAN’s diplomatic partners, but they may be reluctant to take their seats at the table at ASEAN-led forums.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi recently said ASEAN is the ‘most effective mechanism’ to respond to Myanmar’s coup. A number of world leaders have similarly expressed their belief in the value of ASEAN playing a role in resolving the crisis, and ASEAN would presumably welcome this assessment. But if it continues to simply watch from the sidelines as the Tatmadaw becomes ever more brazen in its disregard for international law, it is unlikely to be looked upon as the actor best placed to respond when the next crisis hits.