ASEAN’s inaction on the Myanmar coup shows acceptance of authoritarianism

Image showing the Mandalay Region Government Office blocked by the military. Photo: Kantabon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

ASEAN has called for dialogue between the military and civilians in Myanmar following last month’s coup. However, the grouping has not shown any willingness to hold the military accountable through sanctions, either as a bloc or by joining the international community’s efforts.

By Umair Jamal

Since the Myanmar military took power in a coup on February 1, widespread anti-junta protests across the country have been met with a violent crackdown, resulting in the deaths of at least 70 people so far.

As Myanmar’s military takeover enters its second month, ASEAN member states appear unwilling to intervene in support of the country’s now-ousted democratic government. The development shows the growing limits of democratization in Southeast Asia, as states are primarily concerned about their individual interests and appear unwilling to act against rising authoritarianism, including Myanmar’s military regime.

Southeast Asia’s response to the coup has been muted

The international community has had little luck in convincing Southeast Asian countries to pressure the generals through sanctions on the its financial empire or key leaders.

On the whole, Southeast Asian countries have given no indication that they plan to push the military to reverse its actions. Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in a statement, “We urge Myanmar to consider returning to the negotiating table to remedy the political crisis and avoid further escalation of tensions, which may invite intrusive foreign interventions in the ASEAN region.” Singapore’s foreign minister, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, has said that Myanmar’s military must talk to the country’s deposed civilian leaders to end the crisis. “They need to talk, and we need to help bring them together,” he said.

Last month, ASEAN member countries arranged a special meeting to discuss the escalating violence and coup in Myanmar. On February 2, ASEAN foreign ministers met virtually with Wunna Maung Lwin, who the Myanmar military appointed as foreign minister after the coup. A statement by ASEAN after the meeting called on all parties to choose de-escalation and refrain from further violence but didn’t label the military’s takeover a “coup” or explicitly mention names of political leaders that have been detained. “In this regard, we expressed ASEAN’s readiness to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner,” the statement said.

Many who oppose the military’s takeover are surprised that ASEAN agreed to meet with the military despite the fact that the country’s ousted elected legislature, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, has now termed the Myanmar military a “terrorist group.”

The Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) has emerged as a voice for the deposed parliament domestically and internationally.

Dr. Sasa, the UN envoy of the CRPH, advised ASEAN to avoid meeting Myanmar’s military leadership as it would only grant them legitimacy.

“I’m requesting for the international community to stand with the 54 million people in Burma and not work with the six military coup leaders,” he said as reported by Myanmar Peace Monitor.

Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: Ace Kindredzen

Myanmar coup shows tension between ASEAN stance and member state foreign policies

The military’s takeover in Myanmar has put ASEAN in a difficult position and exposed both the limits of the forum and the region’s reticence to stand in support of democratization.

ASEAN has refrained from criticizing Myanmar’s military directly in part because the forum places individual states’ interests and political priorities before regional interests. The forum’s consensus approach and policy of non-interference have in fact undermined the grouping’s effectiveness and legitimacy. Under its non-interference policy, ASEAN can only take action if all members agree; a view held by a majority in the grouping is not actionable. ASEAN’s limits were already exposed by its failure to show unity or assert leadership in tackling key regional issues such as the South China Sea dispute.

To an extent, ASEAN’s failures show how authoritarianism and quiet acceptance of autocratic norms have been allowed to grow across Southeast Asia. With a few exceptions, governments are curtailing fundamental freedoms and rights and manipulating them for political gains. Few states in the region are going to put pressure on non-democratic countries to reverse these actions.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented on ASEAN’s inability to directly intervene or force Myanmar’s military to reverse its actions, saying, “We have to express disapproval for what is done, which is against the values of many other countries, and in fact a large part of humanity.”

“But to say that I will take action against them, where does this lead? Now, the demonstrators are saying military intervention in Myanmar? Is the 82nd Airborne going to arrive?” Lee asked, referring to US troops deployments in foreign crises.

Echoing Lee’s remarks, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that in ASEAN, the code of non-interference remains a “must” and that “no single ASEAN country has intentions to violate this principle”.

ASEAN will have to do more than call for dialogue, as the violent crackdowns in Myanmar continue and Southeast Asian countries face increasing pressure from the international community to condemn Myanmar’s military.

Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin did indicate that ASEAN may take a firmer stand on in the coming weeks if violence continues in Myanmar, saying in a tweet that ASEAN’s policy of non-interference “is not a blanket approval or tacit consent for wrong to be done there”. He also called former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi “Burmese democracy’s only hope”.    

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15