Since 2021 military coup in Myanmar, the centrality and credibility of ASEAN, as a key block in this region have been severely jeopardized. Critics argue that, ASEAN has once again demonstrated its flaws and has gone from political powerlessness to regional irrelevance.
Despite being caught off guard by the military takeover, Brunei was able to manage such links as ASEAN chair in 2021 and broker member approval on a number of Myanmar policies. Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah was able to garner support and enact consensus-based choices on Myanmar throughout the year by using chair comments and his appointment of the ASEAN Special Envoy. Brunei immediately condemned the coup and urged that “human rights” and “democratic principles” be respected. The Sultan also advocated for the Five-Point Consensus.
In addition, Brunei’s Special Envoy, Erywan Yusof, focused on building partnerships with other ASEAN participants. Yusof assisted Brunei in rallying ASEAN members to urge that the ASEAN Summit accept only a non-political envoy rather than the junta’s leader Min Aung Hlaing. In reality, an ASEAN consensus may also involve bringing ASEAN members closer to the center of the political spectrum. As a result, as Brunei demonstrated, the role of ASEAN chair is even more important.
Brunei’s strategy concentrated on using its prerogatives as chair to assist ASEAN members in establishing consensus on how to deal with the Myanmar issue by personally communicating with ASEAN members. Since 2021, Brunei has pursued a more consensus-based strategy than Cambodia and, more recently, Indonesia.
When Cambodia assumed the ASEAN chair in 2022, it believed it could persuade self-proclaimed Myanmar Prime Minister Min Aung Hlaing to implement the FPC through direct talks. Hun Sen, on the other hand, came to the view that the military administration was being dishonest about adhering to the FPC after several talks that had no results. ASEAN members concurrently lost faith in Hun Sen because they saw his agenda as legitimizing military power. Finally, no consensus-based framework addressed the Myanmar situation during Cambodia’s administration.
Under Indonesia’s Presidency, President Joko Widodo is conducting “quiet diplomacy” talks with important Burmese individuals through backchannels during his presidency. One of Indonesia’s main concerns is assisting ASEAN in including all parties involved in the Myanmar problem. Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s foreign minister, and Ngurah Swajaya, the country’s former ambassador to Singapore, are the two Indonesian diplomats in charge of a special envoy office set up to engage all parties involved in the Myanmar conflict.
According to Marsudi, Indonesia held approximately 60 meetings with the junta, the National Unity Government, and Ethnic Armed Organizations in 2023. Experts, on the other hand, described Indonesia’s policy as “coiled diplomacy” due to its lack of transparency, while ASEAN members remain uncertain about the strategy’s goals and progress. According to popular assumption, Indonesia works more closely with Myanmar stakeholders than ASEAN nations.
On April 24, 2021, Min Aung Hlaing and the leaders of the nine other ASEAN member states met in Jakarta and came to a “five-point consensus” that called for an immediate end to violence as well as “constructive dialog” between “all parties concerned.” This was ASEAN’s first, weak attempt to address Min Aung Hlaing’s disastrous power grab. Consensus is one of ASEAN’s two guiding principles, along with “non-interference,” and was purposefully picked as the word to describe it.
That effectively means that the bloc cannot intervene in a quarrel between member states or take any affirmative action against any of its members during a crisis. Numerous such incidents have occurred since ASEAN’s founding in 1967, including Indonesia’s bloody invasion of East Timor in 1975, ongoing border disputes between Thailand and Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and Malaysia and the Philippines, a cross-border insurgency involving Thailand and Malaysia, and even a string of border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia from 2008 to 2011. The bloc did not address any of the issues or conflicts and continues to do so.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Min Aung Hlaing believed he could disregard the “consensus” and carry on his deadly assault against his junta’s foes, the so-called State Administration Council (SAC). In the meantime, anti-coup protesters set the ASEAN flag on fire in the streets of Mandalay and Yangon, accusing the group of lacking credibility and endorsing military authority. The imprisoned de facto leader of the government that was overthrown in the February 2021 coup, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was not allowed to meet with emissaries sent to Myanmar by ASEAN, the UN, or members of her own legal team.
In any case, it was very naive of some—among them Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister and current ambassador to the United States—to anticipate ASEAN to be a supporter of democracy. Two weeks after the coup, Rudd, who was working for the Asia Society at the time, said in an interview with the BBC that the best course of action was to have a dialogue with the coup organizers under the “guidance of ASEAN.” The European Union (EU), which sanctioned the coup plotters, stated in a statement on April 30, 2021 that it “stands ready to support ASEAN, its Chair, its Secretary General, and the Special Envoy in facilitating a constructive dialogue with all parties.”
Too frequently, the fact that ASEAN is a confederation of mainly authoritarian nations goes unremembered. The communist party controls the dictatorships in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, which is run by an autocratic government that has no interest in upholding democratic values. Elections held in July saw a resounding victory for the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party despite being deemed neither free nor fair by the US State Department, regional legislators who support democracy, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, among others. An absolute monarchy rules Brunei.
Singapore is not well known for respecting opposing viewpoints, Malaysia has fluctuated between suppressing dissidents and periods of greater openness, and the military has staged repeated coups in Thailand against democratically elected governments. The military-appointed upper chamber, or Senate, was not elected and was in place following the May election, preventing the main pro-democracy party from taking power.
Despite having democratic institutions, the Philippines is rife with corruption, and Rodrigo Duterte, the country’s former president, is being charged with crimes against humanity for carrying out a deadly drug campaign by the head prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which is based in The Hague. Following his election as president in 2016, a number of thousand accused drug users and dealers—many of them urban poor and young people who were thought to be innocent—were slaughtered in extrajudicial killings. Myanmar naturally follows after that.
Only Indonesia, the group’s current chair, may be said to be an ASEAN member state that is stable and moderately democratic. As a result, international organizations including the United Nations have urged Indonesia to take the initiative in settling the issue in Myanmar. However, because of the regulations dictating what ASEAN can and cannot do, development has been nonexistent.
While this was going on, in August, East Timor’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, said that if ASEAN couldn’t resolve the issue in Myanmar, his nation would rethink its desire to apply to join as the organization’s 11th member. Using the Portuguese name for his nation, he said, “As a country that had adopted democracy, Timor Leste could not accept military junta regimes anywhere and could not ignore human rights violations in Myanmar.” In the capital Dili a month earlier, President José Ramos-Horta of East Timor had a meeting with Daw Zin Mar Aung, the shadowy civilian National Unity Government of Myanmar, and had questioned international leaders about why they were not aiding Myanmar in the same manner that they are aiding Ukraine.
As a result, the ASEAN should make use of the gap in the ASEAN Charter’s Article 20 that allows members to act unilaterally when the Charter is broken. On the other side, international actors should not exclusively rely on ASEAN; they need to wake up and take action to reduce tensions in Myanmar, including ending the civil war, repatriating the Rohingya, and creating democratic governance. failing to help the millions of people in Myanmar would be a failing of humanity as a whole.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.