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ASEAN needs an urgent makeover

Bloc should ditch consensus rules and equip states to address regional crises

| Southeast Asia
ASEAN foreign ministers pose for a photo in Nha Trang, Vietnam, in January 2020: the inertia to remain weak and toothless will be hard to combat.   © AP

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

The military coup in Myanmar and its violent aftermath have raised existential questions about whether the Association of Southeast Asian Nations really serves any useful purpose for the region's 632 million people.

Facing a barrage of criticism within and from outside the region for having failed so far to effectively use the tools of diplomacy and engagement to address the crisis in Myanmar, ASEAN has reached a critical juncture.

Finding a way to retool the grouping to be more responsive may not seem all that hard based on the association's rather liberal charter, which came into force in 2008. But unlike the African Union, which has used a strong peacemaking and security enforcement mechanism to intervene in countries that have descended into violence and instability, the inertia to remain weak and toothless will be hard to combat.

In the foreign ministries of the 10 member states, there is a strong impulse to avoid strengthening even the capacity to address humanitarian crises, for fear it would encourage more frequent intrusive internal interference. The Jakarta-based secretariat that, on paper at least, is tasked with providing assistance to member states in need, and whose secretary-general can notionally provide his or her good offices to resolve disputes, is poorly staffed and underfunded.

Efforts in recent years to bolt on a human rights function and launch an ASEAN institute for peace and reconciliation have been circumscribed by weak and narrow mandates. When the secretariat started to play a low- key role in helping Myanmar to address the Rohingya crisis after 2017, conservative members fought to limit the scope of this engagement.

The Jakarta-based secretariat is poorly staffed and underfunded.    © AP

Advocates of the status quo argue that ASEAN was never designed to do more than keep the peace, a function it has performed well. There have been some limited border skirmishes but no wars since its founding in 1967. In terms of managing larger powers, ASEAN has also served well as a platform for convening dialogue partners -- crucially the biggest powers, China and the U.S. -- and helping to manage geopolitical tensions.

But there have long been signs that this light model for functional cooperation is no longer adequate. Rifts have appeared in ASEAN ranks over China's regional role, advocacy of human rights and divergent views on democracy. The old consensus-building approach to ASEAN unity and cohesion has come up against a younger generation opposed to authoritarian military rule. For the first time, popular opposition to ASEAN as a body has been evident, with ASEAN flags burned on the streets of Myanmar cities.

The Myanmar debacle highlights the need for a stronger ASEAN equipped to live up to its charter rather than seem divorced from it. Given the entrenched limitations and modest aspirations for active regional cooperation, what could be done to make ASEAN more fit for modern purpose?

It might start by empowering already established institutions such as the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Center (AHA). Member states should be asked to donate more money and, more importantly, more actively transfer staffers to boost the humanitarian support function of the secretariat.

On the political front, while the meeting of ASEAN leaders on Myanmar on April 24 already broke the mold by essentially agreeing to intervention in Myanmar, in the two months since then, the Bruneian deputy foreign minister, serving as the chair of ASEAN, has mostly undermined this consensus by delaying the appointment of an envoy or envoys and allowing Myanmar's military leadership to co-opt the strategy for its own purposes.

One solution would be to skirt the ASEAN tradition of consensus, which, because of the divergence of views and positions of the 10 member states, is becoming increasingly difficult.

Instead, those who feel strongly about issues should take the lead on framing a plan and then go out and seek support from more recalcitrant member states. One of the problems with implementing ASEAN's Myanmar plan was every other member state's deference to Brunei, the small and weak nation that holds the rotating chair.

More decisive changes might include the establishment of an ASEAN peace and security mechanism mandated to explore collective action to safeguard the region's security and stability.

This could be modeled on the African Union's Peace and Security Council, which is a decision-making body for the prevention and resolution of conflicts on the continent. Another element could involve empowering the ASEAN High Council -- enshrined in ASEAN's foundational Treaty of Amity and Cooperation but never convened -- to adjudicate on member states in breach of the ASEAN Charter with power to impose sanctions.

Such tools for managing regional collective security will take time to establish, and may evolve too slowly to bolster ASEAN's efforts to influence events in Myanmar. Meanwhile, the costs of not immediately streamlining decision-making on key political issues and building capacity to provide urgently required help to member states will be significant and harmful.

Disunity, already a problem because of pressure from outside powers, is growing from within. Some states will start to feel they must act alone. That will leave ASEAN exposed to the threat of the very kind of interstate conflict it was designed to prevent.

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