ASEAN’s Outlook on the Crisis
The ongoing political crisis in Myanmar after the military seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021, against the civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) while drawing international condemnation has also put a focus on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN has often in the past treated such crisis as internal affairs by following its principle of non-interference since in its understanding this helped protect and guarantee independence and sovereignty of its member states.[i] Under the Bangkok Declaration of 1967, the formal purpose of the ASEAN was to promote economic, social, cultural, scientific, and administrative fields, cooperation and to promote regional peace and stability.[ii]
The changing nature of world affairs in the 1960s led ASEAN to make a commitment during its Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in November 1971, to make Southeast Asia a Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN). Further, an official commitment to political cooperation was expressed in a Declaration of ASEAN concord at the Bali Summit in February 1976 by the heads of the government. The ASEAN Concord through the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) laid out provisions for a norm-based regional order and for dispute settlement.[iii] Further by adopting a cooperative approach, the Association has also been extremely cautious to ensure the acceptance of the principle of equality between member states. In the post-Cold War period ASEAN has been establishing new regional mechanisms to help improve dialogue and regional institutional capacity in order to respond to emerging challenges. The regional and global environment has also necessitated the need for ASEAN to change the nature its regional perceptions.[iv]
ASEAN sees the current political crisis in Myanmar, which has witnessed large-scale protests, civilian-army altercations leading to incidence of violence, as having grave implications across the region. These include the impact on the ongoing dialogue with Bangladesh over the repatriation and settlement of the Rohingya refugees; concerns over security rising from the insurgency in Kachin states which becomes a cause of concern for the neighbouring countries sharing borders; to the impact on countries that have substantial trading and investments interest with Myanmar. The broad security implications that would threaten regional stability have pushed ASEAN to move beyond condemnation and calls for dialogue towards building a more constructive engagement with Myanmar’s Military Government.[v]
ASEAN’s Constructive Engagement with Myanmar
Myanmar which became a member of ASEAN in July 1997 – despite strong criticism from the West for its human rights records. This was a major step in building a constructive engagement with its military government. Myanmar continued to face harsh economic sanctions through the 1990s and 2000s by Western countries and with the crackdown on the 2007 protestors further outrage had followed. After the March 2011 assumption of power of an elected government, the military withdrew from its direct interventions in politics. However, it continued to maintain a strong role. This was through the involvement of many former military officers in senior levels of government, including the President, one vice-President, the Speaker of the lower house of Parliament, and the twenty-five percent block of Parliament reserved for military officers, and it also retained constitutional right to step in to assume control of the country in case of national emergency. While a Constitutional Review Joint Committee was established to consider revision to the 2008 Constitution the recommendation unveiled on January 31, 2014, fell short of expectations with the only significant proposed change being the creation of a more equitable power-sharing arrangement between the central government and its ethnic-minority-controlled governments.[vi]
Following the February military coup in Myanmar, on April 24, 2021, ASEAN convened a special summit in which it extended an invitation to junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing. With the escalation of violence on the protestors and civilians, the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting (ALM) indicated a unified stance and the need for a collective response, by engaging with the very party that caused the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar. At the ALM, the leaders reiterated “...that the political stability in ASEAN Member States is essential to achieving a peaceful, stable and prosperous ASEAN Community….”. The Leaders reached a ‘Five-Point Consensus’; first it called for the immediate cessation of violence and the exercise of utmost restraint of all parties in Myanmar. Second, the need for a constructive dialogue amongst all parties in order to achieve a peaceful solution, which will be in the larger interests of all the people. Third, with the assistance of the Secretary-General of ASEAN, a special envoy would be appointed to help facilitate mediation of the dialogue process. Fourth, the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA) would provide humanitarian assistance and finally the special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.[vii]
On June 4, 2021, representatives of ASEAN which included Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi met with Myanmar’s junta leader Gen Min Aung Hlaing, to help facilitate dialogue. The appointment of an ASEAN special envoy which is one of the five points agreed is yet to be confirmed as it needs approval from both sides and this is slowing the process. Further, according to the Spokesperson of the Military government, the special envoy would be allowed to visit the country only after security and stability are achieved. Myanmar’s opposition – the National Unity Government which is a shadow government formed by civilian lawmakers deposed by the military after the coup – emphasised that “... ASEAN should meet not just with the military... (since) any meeting about the future of the people of Myanmar must include the people of Myanmar, (their) voices must be heard…”[viii]
The setting up of ASEAN was in a way also to ensure regional reconciliation through dialogues while keeping the focus on the socio-economic development of the region. Underpinning the dramatic political developments being witnessed in Myanmar with the return of the military in politics may undo the great progress the country has made over the last few years. While the impact on the economy would be felt due to the ongoing political uncertainty, this will gets compounded with rising risks of emerging security threats which are increasingly becoming transnational. The threats from transnational crimes, environmental degradation, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, are common concerns as they impact growth and stability across the region.
In the aftermath of the political unrest in Myanmar, ASEAN has taken a more concrete step towards establishing a dialogue to help bring reconciliation and normalcy. Concerned over reports of fatalities and escalation of violence in Myanmar, ASEAN expressed the need for a collective effort to help facilitate a peaceful solution to the ongoing political crisis and limit its fallout on the people and their livelihood. Peace and reconciliation remain a priority for ASEAN right from its establishment. While its ongoing effort with the military government of Myanmar is yet to witness any major breakthroughs creating an environment for dialogue is perhaps the only way forward. Unlike previous instances, the Association is not perceiving the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar as an internal affair as it sees it having a broad impact across the region. The ASEAN Concord II adopted in 2005 emphasised on the need for enhanced consultations on matters that seriously affect the common interest of ASEAN. Further, the ASEAN Concord II for the first time also spelled out clearly the institutional norms and values, which amongst other things seeks from its members to respect fundaments freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and social justice. The ‘Five Points Consensus’ provides ASEAN with an opportunity to build a comprehensive dialogue with all parties’ concern in order to bring a durable settlement to the ongoing political crisis.
*Dr Temjenmeren Ao, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
[i]Anna Malindog-Uy, “Myanmar Crisis: What Is ASEAN Doing?”, The ASEAN Post, February 10, 2021, https://theaseanpost.com/article/myanmar-crisis-what-asean-doing, Accessed on June 1, 2021.
[ii]“Indonesia”, National Intelligence Estimate (NIE 55-68), US Department of States, December 31, 1968, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB242/1968_NIE-55-68.pdf, Accessed on April 12, 2020.
[iii]Joseph ChinyongLiow, Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia, (Routledge: Oxon, 2015), p. 82-83.
[iv]Munmun Majumdar, Indonesia: Primus Inter Pares in ASEAN, (Rajat Publications: New Delhi, 2003), p. 8-15.
[v]Brian Wong, “ASEAN states must act to help Myanmar. This is where they should start”, Fortune, March 25, 2021, https://fortune.com/2021/03/24/myanmar-military-coup-asean-states-southeast-asia-brian-wong-oxford-political-review/, Accessed on June 2, 2021.
[vi]Joseph ChinyongLiow, Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia, (Routledge: Oxon, 2015), p. 28-30.
[vii]“Chairman’s Statement on the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting” ASEAN, April 24, 2021, https://asean.org/storage/Chairmans-Statement-on-ALM-Five-Point-Consensus-24-April-2021-FINAL-a-1.pdf, Accessed on May 27, 2021.
[viii]“ASEAN envoys meet Myanmar junta leader to press for dialogue on coup”, Business Standard, June 5, 2021, https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/asean-envoys-meet-myanmar-junta-leader-to-press-for-dialogue-on-coup-121060500099_1.html, Accessed on June 10, 2021.