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Opinion

Divided ASEAN must halt Myanmar's slide toward collapse

Path to effective collective action lies in casting off long-standing aversions

| Myanmar
Anti coup protesters run after police threw tear gas canisters in Mandalay on Mar. 3: what can ASEAN do?   © Sipa/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 Association of Southeast Asian Nations has entered uncharted waters as the escalating crisis in Myanmar tests time-honored respect for noninterference and may prompt a historic shift in regional diplomacy.

As casualties mounted and resistance to the Feb. 1 military coup was paraded daily on social media, some members of the ten-member bloc were clearly rattled. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took the extraordinary step of giving an interview to the BBC to express concern about the loss of life on the streets of Myanmar's towns and cities.

The question is what can ASEAN do? It is important because major powers, including the United States and China, have indicated they would like to see the fifty-four-year-old grouping take the lead in preventing a bloodbath and complete state collapse in Myanmar, which joined ASEAN in 1997.

Superficially, all that has happened is an informal meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, which was convened virtually on Mar. 2. The bland statement issued by Brunei, which chairs the group this year, implied that a range of issues was discussed and the Myanmar crisis was confined to the last two paragraphs.

In reality, a mold was broken at the meeting after at least three-member states -- Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore -- expressed firm messages of concern about the situation in Myanmar. "It is rare that we speak so openly as we did at this meeting," said one ASEAN foreign minister. "All our messages were delivered."

Perhaps this reflects the fact that after a year of meeting virtually because of COVID-19, officials are finally learning to do business online. More likely, it is a measure of just how high the stakes are for the region after the military and police started shooting protesters and phone video grabs captured their bloodied corpses.

For the first time since ASEAN's formation in 1967, one of its member states faces catastrophic collapse. Till now, the grouping has barely blinked at military coups, perverted elections and illegal detentions. Two military coups in Thailand within a decade went barely noticed, and when Cambodia's strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen banned the main opposition party after elections in 2018, nothing was said. ASEAN's bedrock commitment to noninterference prevailed.

The Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar is different for two reasons: first, the military take over occurs against a backdrop of rising tensions between the U.S. and China, and Myanmar straddles a critical geopolitical fault line between India and China. Second, the massive expression of popular anger against the coup and the increasingly brutal response is being streamed daily to screens across the region, making it impossible to ignore.

Even so, the region has moved slowly and awkwardly to respond, and what happens after the ministerial meeting is far from decided.

What is certain is that without Indonesia's prompt response to the coup, there might not have been a meeting at all. A week after the coup, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi traveled to Brunei, Singapore and Thailand to meet face to face with her counterparts. She had planned to visit Myanmar but canceled after news of the visit was leaked. Marsudi's shuttle diplomacy helped persuade reluctant colleagues to take a stronger line on Myanmar and secured Myanmar's agreement to join the informal ministerial meeting.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, pictured in August 2017: her shuttle diplomacy helped persuade reluctant colleagues to take a stronger line on Myanmar.   © Reuters

Fine. But now the region is divided at least half the membership, including key states Thailand and Vietnam, have preferred to avoid expressing concern. Indonesia will need to work alongside Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore, a subset that is primarily Muslim and cannot easily relate to mostly Buddhist Myanmar. As one senior ASEAN diplomat put it: "It's like a faulty Rubik's cube where it is impossible to get all the colors aligned on one side."

Nonetheless, there is a path to effective collective action. First, those ASEAN states willing to engage Myanmar must remain active. Statements of concern and offers to help must be sustained.

Over the past dozen years, Myanmar has in fact allowed ASEAN to address internal problems -- such as the aftermath of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, and more recently to support the planned repatriation of Rohingya refugees. The ad hoc team established by the ASEAN secretariat is the first of its kind established to assist a member state on an internal matter. Retno Marsudi believes it could be retooled to address broader humanitarian concerns in Myanmar such as the urgent need for the COVID vaccine.

Second, ASEAN should find ways to speak to the people of Myanmar as well as the military that seized power. To do so, ASEAN must cast off a long-standing aversion to civil society activism and support track two platforms that can reach out to the protest movement that is much larger and more diverse than the ousted National League for Democracy led by its detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Official ASEAN support for an informal mechanism that brings together ASEAN legislators, human rights advocates, and humanitarians, guided by a panel of eminent persons, would send a strong signal that the region is ready to listen to the people who are risking their lives on the streets of Myanmar.

Ultimately, none of this may be adequate. Quietly, regional officials are hoping that a stalemate will force the military to stop the shooting and to find a way to sit down and talk to the people on the streets without the need for intervention. And if China decided to step in and demand an end to the violence, everyone would quietly approve.

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