ASEAN Debates Myanmar Crisis

Dr Kamal Uddin Ahmed

7 May, 2021 12:00 AM printer

A special Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was held on 24 April 2021 at the Indonesian Capital, Jakarta, to discuss the current crisis in Myanmar. Such an ASEAN Summit is unprecedented given the long-held ASEAN principle of “non-interference” in a member - states internal affairs, at least openly.

The 10-member ASEAN is essentially a political and economic alliance fashioned in August 1967 in Bangkok. The Member - States consists of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam.

The special Summit was the first strategic effort to address the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, an aid-dependent and least developed country (LDC) bordered by Bangladesh, China, India, and Thailand.

All but three ASEAN leaders participated in the high-level meeting in Jakarta sponsored by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Their respective foreign ministers represented the Philippines, Thailand and Laos. The Summit mainly focussed on the post-coup crisis and political instability in Myanmar. The Junta chief General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the 1 February military coup, was also invited to join the Summit. The supporters of the ousted elected government criticised ASEAN for including him in its meetings.

Myanmar has been embroiled in violence as soon as the junta Chief General Min Aung Hlaing deposed the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Certainly, it is a severe blow to nation’s transition to democracy and economic development. It is reported that to quell the anti-coup movement and mass protests, the security forces killed more than 730 people and detained over 3,000 pro-democracy leaders, activists, journalists and protesters.

The brutal junta has been justifying the coup by claiming extensive fraud in last November elections in which Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide. The international community has condemned the violent crackdowns against unarmed civilians and imposed sanctions against top military leaders and military-run companies – Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation. The UN agencies and experts have also been vigorously criticising the junta’s crackdown.

Moreover, evidence of ongoing fighting between the military and ethnic groups have deepened concerns among the ASEAN leaders that it could eventually trigger an unwarranted civil war in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the Pro-democracy politicians, including toppled members of parliament, ethnic minorities and activists, have already formed a parallel National Unity Government (NUG) to fight against the military government. However, their leaders were shunned from the Summit. The NUG - promptly banned by the junta, claimed itself the ‘legitimate political power’ in the country and urged foreign leaders not to recognise the military government that grabbed power forcibly.

A joint communique confirmed the ASEAN Summit’s consensus on five points to restore peace and stability in Myanmar. These are: ending violence without delay; commencing constructive dialogue among all parties; appointing a special envoy to initiate the peace process; facilitating envoys as well as delegation’s visit to Myanmar, and acceptance of humanitarian assistance for the crisis-torn country.

Remarkably, the five-point consensus -apparently a calculated move, did not offer any time line and also did not mention release of political detainees. A prolonged crisis is most likely to result in more bloodbaths, breakdown of the economy and too much sufferings of the people of Myanmar.

The junta leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, seemingly accepted the Summit’s statement calling for an end to violence and initiate dialogue among all concerned parties. On the other hand, Myanmar's pro-democracy leaders rejected the agreement and declared to carry on demonstrations against the military rule thus making the task more difficult for a speedy cessation of violence and opening a dialogue.

The Jakarta Summit hoped for a tangible outcome to end the crisis since political stability in member States is crucial to attaining a “peaceful stable and prosperous ASEAN.” After the Summit, Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, told reporters that the coup leader was “not opposed to ASEAN playing a constructive role, or an ASEAN delegation visit, or humanitarian assistance”. Lee added that "He said he heard us, he would take the points in which he considered helpful.” But the junta leader needs to act really fast in fulfilling the ASEAN’s declaration.

Without a doubt, the Summit reflected ASEAN’s grave concerns over the miserable situation in Myanmar and its resolve to help it out of the crisis. An important guiding principle of the ASEAN is “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another’s”. This principle and divergent interests of ASEAN prevent its members from intervening and using force against the despotic junta that has been flouting the UN Charter, the basic principles of justice and the rule of law.

Unwilling to abandon its covenant of non-interference, the ASEAN appears to be powerless to take any tougher action to resolve a member State’s unacceptable internal crisis. ASEAN was also totally helpless when a violent military clampdown was launched in Myanmar during 2016-2017 resulting in the carnage of thousands of Rohingyas, their forceful eviction and eventual exodus of over a million refugees to Bangladesh.

Nor ASEAN took any firm action when a military coup ousted democratically elected government in Thailand in May 2014. It simply issued a statement to resolve the problem “through dialogue and consultations” and normalised its relationship with the General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s Government. ASEAN’s failure to act strongly to its own ally’s internal contentious matters undermines its credibility.

Now, the ASEAN and the distraught general public of Myanmar have no other option than to wait and watch the junta leader’s genuine actions to end the continuing crisis and re-establish a democratic civilian government there.


The writer is a former Professor and Chairman, Department of Political Science, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh