Min Aung Hlaing’s ASEAN invite is necessary despite injustice of ignoring shadow government

Min Aung Hlaing. Photo: Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Myanmar’s coup leader needs to attend ASEAN’s upcoming emergency meeting on the situation in Myanmar on April 24 despite activists’ legitimate concerns that this elevates the junta’s profile.

By Zachary Frye                                             

On April 24, ASEAN is set to hold an emergency meeting in Jakarta on the political crisis in Myanmar. On February 1 the Myanmar military, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, took over the country’s government after alleging there were irregularities in last November’s elections.

There is no evidence of mass voter fraud and since taking power the military has imposed draconian measures to silence resistance to the takeover, including curfews, internet blackouts and bans on social gatherings.

Amid waves of mass protest, security forces have also killed over 700 people—a number the military disputes. With a global spotlight on the situation, ASEAN’s meeting is an attempt to work towards a resolution of the political impasse. 

In the runup to the meeting, however, there has been considerable handwringing by activists and observers as to the role ASEAN is prepared to play in the conflict.

Activists aligned with Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement are concerned that by inviting Min Aung Hlaing to the summit, ASEAN legitimizes the military’s actions on the international stage, including its use of deadly force against its own population.

They also argue that by ignoring Myanmar’s shadow government, an organization called the National Unity Government (NUG) made up of the country’s duly elected leaders, ASEAN is dismissing the stakeholders that have a legitimate say in the country’s future.  

With that said, despite the injustice and authoritarianism of the military government, not inviting them to the meeting would likely make Myanmar’s political situation worse.

Although disinviting Min Aung Hlaing would be a snub to the military government—and a cathartic moment for activists—the reality is that the junta holds power in Myanmar.

Without his attendance at the meeting, ASEAN leaders would be abandoning an opportunity to apply direct diplomatic pressure.

Instead of decrying the attendance of junta leaders at ASEAN’s meeting, pro-democracy advocates should focus on the way the bloc interacts with Myanmar’s military government when the meeting takes place.

The Allée des Nations in front of the Palace of Nations (United Nations Office at Geneva). Photo: Tom Page, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

International pressure on Myanmar is needed, even if the junta shows little sign it will yield

There has been considerable pressure from the international community against the junta, including sanctions from the United States and Europe.

Despite strong statements from UN officials, however, the international body failed to agree to a resolution condemning the coup after China, often seen as Myanmar’s ally, blocked the effort.

Critics say China has given Myanmar’s generals cover and the junta has indeed argued that condemnation from the West is irrelevant to them. However, Beijing did release statements expressing support for a democratic transition in Myanmar and an end to the violence against protestors—moves that detractors say have little substance behind them.

Regardless, there is little indication that pressure from the international community is altering the junta’s decisions. Historically, the military has been known to disregard calls for reform from outside the country, including during its decades-long rule of the country beginning in 1962.

From the military’s standpoint, inviting Myanmar’s shadow government to the ASEAN meeting is likely a non-starter. Amid calls that the NUG attend the summit, the junta reportedly deemed the group an unlawful association.

It’s clearly an injustice that Myanmar’s elected representatives won’t be present at the summit and not inviting them to direct talks makes little rational sense.

Ideally both the NUG and the junta would be present at the summit. Short of that, however, the best way for ASEAN to effect justice in Myanmar is to engage with junta leaders in a smart and tactful way.

Photo: Hariboneagle927, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

ASEAN needs to walk a fine line given democratic norms in the region

The metaphorical elephant in the room regarding ASEAN’s dealings with Myanmar’s junta is that a significant portion of the bloc is made up of countries with authoritarian leaders, who in some cases circumvented or altered the democratic process to gain power.

Cambodia’s Hun Sen, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha are the most glaring examples. After Thailand’s military took power in 2014, for instance, ASEAN’s response was muted and leaders in the region generally treated the coup as an internal matter.

Noninterference is a guiding principle of the bloc, as stated in ASEAN’s charter. This arguably gives the junta more confidence coming into the summit and they will doubtlessly claim that the crisis is a domestic issue that does not warrant outside interference.

One of the main issues following the coup in Myanmar, however, is the ongoing violence coupled with widespread international attention. This has put added pressure on ASEAN to help find a resolution to the crisis.

Amid the controversy surrounding the meeting, Thailand’s Prayuth announced that he would not be attending personally and instead would send his foreign minister, saying that other countries are also doing the same.

So far, only the Philippines has confirmed it intends to follow Thailand’s lead in sending its foreign minister. The heads of state of Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia, meanwhile, confirmed they would be attending.  

Asean National Flags in Jakarta
Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata

ASEAN must engage the junta but that doesn’t mean they should treat it as a normal government

Although engagement with the junta is necessary, that doesn’t mean leaders can’t take steps to make the summit a meaningful step towards resolving the crisis in Myanmar. Short of inviting NUG leaders, ASEAN leaders could take smaller steps to ensure the military government doesn’t think the meeting is business-as-usual.

As suggested by pro-democracy activists, leaders in the region could express their position on the coup by ignoring the international titles of junta officials, such as foreign minister, in favor of referring to them as delegates of the military’s governing body, known as the State Administration Council (SAC).

Another idea is to allow member states to make their own official statements after the meeting instead of issuing only a single joint statement by ASEAN’s Chair. This would give member states a chance to clearly voice their disagreements with the junta.

Most importantly, despite ASEAN’s potential disagreements over the situation in Myanmar, the bloc must convey to Min Aung Hlaing and his government that the SAC’s actions not only push the region into further political disrepute but also threaten regional stability.

Alongside the language of noninterference in ASEAN’s charter is a commitment to adhere to the “principles of democracy…respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

ASEAN has a duty to push for stable democracy, peace and security for the people of Myanmar. Directly engaging with those in charge on the ground in Myanmar, in a tactful and careful manner, is the best way to increase the likelihood that this happens.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.