Commentary: ASEAN can do better on Myanmar this time

SINGAPORE: On Monday (Feb 1), a day earlier than Myanmar’s new Parliament could be sworn in, elected members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), together with President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Cabinet members and parliamentarians, had been deposed by Myanmar’s armed forces.

The Tatmadaw justified Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention on an alleged possession of illegally imported walkie talkies.

While the motivations for the navy takeover stay unclear, the Tatmadaw’s goal of preserving its central function in Myanmar’s politics can’t be dominated out.

READ: Commentary: Why a military coup cannot be the solution in Myanmar

The navy had earlier alleged voter fraud in Myanmar’s basic elections, insisting that there have been as much as 8.6 million irregularities in voter lists throughout Myanmar’s 314 townships.

This accusation was categorically rejected by the civilian-appointed Union Election Commission, which cited the dearth of proof in assist of the Tatmadaw’s claims.


With leaders around the globe criticising Monday’s navy takeover in Myanmar, what has ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) – of which Myanmar is a member – performed in response to the unfolding disaster up to now, and what extra can it do?

In the rapid aftermath of the coup, the numerous responses from its member states instructed a divided ASEAN response.

FILE PHOTO: Myanmar State Counselor Suu Kyi attends the opening session of the 31st ASEAN Summit in

FILE PHOTO: Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attends the opening session of the thirty first ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines, November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

On the one hand, member states like Cambodia and Thailand dismissed the coup as a home matter to be resolved by the folks of Myanmar themselves.

On the opposite hand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – and, after some wavering, the Philippines – expressed concern over the coup and urged restraint and a peaceable decision to the unfolding disaster.

Interestingly, it was Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha – himself a key participant within the 2014 navy coup in Thailand – who expressed the significance that the ASEAN nations take a “collective stand” on the difficulty. 

It wasn’t that way back that ASEAN was roundly criticised for its failure to successfully tackle Myanmar’s Rohingya disaster, the place the navy deployed a lethal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.

READ: Commentary: Myanmar’s coup – end of the power sharing arrangement between military and civilian forces?

READ: Commentary: Why Myanmar voted overwhelmingly for Aung San Suu Kyi again

International claims of ethnic cleaning and even genocide had been levelled. 

But subsequent ASEAN chairman’s statements and ASEAN summitry joint declarations framed the difficulty in much less black-and-white phrases, even broadening the difficulty to name for an finish to “all acts of violence in Rakhine” whereas refraining from using the phrase Rohingya.

ASEAN’s response appeared hamstrung, as particular person member states took various nationwide stances on the state of affairs, with Indonesia and Malaysia taking a harder place. 

And the regional grouping had little sway over how Myanmar dealt with the state of affairs, even refraining from pressuring the nation to get its home so as.

This time spherical, in response to the coup, Brunei, in its function as the present chair of ASEAN, issued a press release calling for “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy” in Myanmar, citing the ASEAN Charter’s democracy rules.

The ASEAN Charter requires its signatories to stick to “the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government”.

That stated, the ASEAN Charter is seen as an aspirational doc that promotes the aforementioned values and rules, whereas leaving their institution, implementation and preservation within the palms of the member states themselves.

ASEAN Summit and Related Meetings in Manila

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi (L) shakes palms with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) earlier than the opening ceremony of the thirty first Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila, Philippines,13 November 2017. REUTERS/Mark R. Cristino/Pool/Files

Whether ASEAN resides as much as these aspirations is designed to be extra open to interpretation than western observers want for, which means that ASEAN member states too have extra nationwide leeway in how they select to answer such disaster.

ASEAN could not have felt that it tousled in its response to the Rohingya disaster, having to steadiness a mess of concerns, however the worldwide group anticipated extra from the regional grouping.


Observers usually level to ASEAN’s decision-by-consensus mannequin and doctrine of non-intervention because the perceived hindrances to extra decisive and concerted motion by the organisation.

The lack of a punitive sanction-based compliance mechanism has additionally been cited to clarify ASEAN’s incapacity to carry its member states accountable for his or her failure to stick to the organisation’s democracy rules, not to mention their violations of human rights.

Thus, the place its response to the coup goes, the sense that ASEAN’s palms are tied is comprehensible and expectations as such of what ASEAN is able to stay low.

READ: Commentary: Can Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD win again despite not delivering many of its promises?

Indeed, Bilahari Kausikan, a former senior diplomat from Singapore has even gone on file to counsel that membership in ASEAN shouldn’t be taken as a given however should be revoked if and when member states behave in methods detrimental to the collective pursuits of the organisation.

And but, regardless of these limitations, ASEAN has previously demonstrated a capability to work round them in its dealings with Myanmar.

When Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar in 2008, ASEAN responded to worldwide outrage over the junta’s mishandling of the disaster by working straight with the navy and serving as a conduit for support from the worldwide group.

Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days before, walk after they received pe

Rohingya refugees stroll after they obtained permission from the Bangladeshi military to proceed on to refugee camps in Palang Khali, close to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh Oct 19, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS)

Arguably, it was ASEAN’s engagement effort, amongst different issues, that helped pave the way in which in direction of Myanmar’s subsequent political reforms beneath Prime Minister (and later President) Thein Sein, which led to improved relations with the US, the discharge of Aung San Suu Kyi from home arrest, and the reinstatement of the NLD because the nation’s main opposition occasion.

Indeed, Myanmar went to the extent of accepting ASEAN election observers at its parliamentary by-elections in 2012.

ASEAN’s success in that occasion suggests the drive of collective peer strain, when judiciously utilized on the applicable stress factors, is to not be underestimated – even in circumstances the place consensus and non-intervention seem to face in the way in which.

READ: Commentary: Trump’s playbook on China in the South China Sea has some lessons for the Biden administration

“While ASEAN may work on the principle of consensus, ASEAN also works on the principle of peer pressure, and peer pressure can be very effective”,  George Yeo, Singapore’s then international minister, famous in 2011.

“And it is not easy for an ASEAN member country to take a rigid position when all the other nine countries are in opposition”, Yeo went on to conclude.

In 2007, the organisation unified on Myanmar and impelled it to postpone its flip that yr as ASEAN chair out of concern for its navy crackdown on the Saffron Revolution, which noticed tens of hundreds of Buddhist monks and nuns protesting towards the junta.  


What this implies is that ASEAN’s social energy is just not inconsequential. But a lot boils right down to what the organisation really does with it.

As Mathew Davies, a famous Australian skilled on ASEAN affairs, argued in a 2012 essay, ASEAN’s ineffectiveness in residing as much as its declared commitments is just not actually because of its institutional and normative constraints.

ASEAN Summit in Hanoi

Vietnamese performers in conventional dressing from member international locations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) carry out on the opening ceremony of the thirty seventh ASEAN summit in Hanoi, Vietnam November 12, 2020. REUTERS/Kham

Rather, in Davies’ view, ASEAN’s political technique has suffered from incoherence as a result of ASEAN and its member states remained extra involved with making a unified place towards exterior strain than on creating a single coverage in direction of Myanmar.

Thus understood, whereas Thailand’s Prayut is right to name for a collective stand by ASEAN on the coup in Myanmar, will ASEAN member states circle their wagons towards the skin world in defence of the newly put in authorities in Naypyidaw, or collectively interact and strain it in additional constructive instructions? The selection is de facto ASEAN’s.

Despite the coup, at this time’s Myanmar is not that beneath Ne Win, who led the nation down a path of autarky and isolationism, culminating within the “8888 Uprising” and its bloody putdown in August 1988.

READ: Commentary: The RCEP will change the economics and politics of the region

READ: Commentary: RCEP a huge victory in tough times

Coup chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, certainly has no intention to reverse Myanmar’s financial progress, however Myanmar is prone to come beneath assault from the sanctions from western international locations within the days and months forward.

This conceivably gives ASEAN with a gap to proceed its longstanding follow of “enhanced interaction” with Myanmar and nudging it in direction of constructive change.

Jürgen Rüland, a famous scholar of Southeast Asian affairs, lately instructed that ASEAN goals to construct a global picture of itself as a “good global citizen”.

ASEAN dropped the ball on the Rohingya disaster. Hopefully it’s going to do better this time.

Tan See Seng is Professor of International Relations on the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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