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Myanmar coup reveals urgent need for ASEAN overhaul

Bloc of 10 nations hamstrung by self-defeating search for unanimity

| Southeast Asia
Protesters hold shields with attached pictures of Myanmar's military junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in Yangon on Mar. 1: booting the country from ASEAN would be a good way to kick-start the bloc's revival.   © Reuters

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and the "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is known, has reportedly killed 550 civilians, including more than 40 children, over the past two months as part of a brutal attempt to suppress nationwide protests against the Feb. 1 coup.

This is the same organization that has been accused of mass atrocities against various ethnic minority groups over the past decades. Just last year, the International Criminal Court called on the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi then to take all necessary measures to protect Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims from genocide.

The unfolding tragedy has been a rude awakening for those who naively bought into the illusion that Myanmar had taken real steps toward democratization. Despite appearances, the Tatmadaw never truly relinquished power with the men in uniform retaining veto rights over all critical government decisions.

But the latest crisis has also exposed the rotten core of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has not only coddled the Tatmadaw for years and but has repeatedly failed to forge a functional consensus on the region's most pressing issues.

ASEAN is in desperate need of a fundamental overhaul, lest it fades into complete irrelevance when it comes to shaping the region's security architecture. Absent a full restoration of the democratically elected civilian government, booting Myanmar from the bloc would be a good way to kick-start ASEAN's revival.

A screen shows ASEAN leaders attending an online summit in Hanoi in November 2020: ASEAN is in desperate need of a fundamental overhaul.   © VNA/AP

As Arab historian Ibn Khaldun warned in his classic 14th-century Muqaddimah,  or "Introduction," it is not physical defeat per se that leads to the fall of nations. Instead, he argues that collective decline comes when "a nation has become the victim of a psychological defeat."

In many ways, ASEAN appears to be in the grip of such a psychological defeat, namely a lack of strategic imagination and an obstinate complacency in the face of a succession of crises. Despite repeatedly declaring its centrality when it comes to shaping Asia's geopolitical future, ASEAN operates more like a small- to medium-sized enterprise with no human rights charter.

Woefully undermanned and underfunded, ASEAN's handful of permanent bureaucrats have struggled to oversee regional integration among hundreds of millions of people. ASEAN has also failed to forge even a semblance of unity on any sensitive geopolitical matter due to a well-entrenched misapplication of the concept of consensus, one of its founding principles.

The problem is that whenever it faces a major crisis, from the South China Sea disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors to the long history of mass atrocities in Myanmar, ASEAN seems to equate consensus with unanimity, meaning that opposition from a single ASEAN member, no matter its size, can torpedo responses to any pressing issue.

No wonder that external powers such as China have little trouble nudging ASEAN to act in their own interests. Or that Myanmar itself was able to repeatedly veto any attempts by ASEAN to sanction its campaign of extermination of ethnic minority groups in recent years.

Even more deplorable is the fact that the Tatmadaw's brazen overthrow of Myanmar's democratically elected government was condemned by so few ASEAN members. Astonishingly, Thailand's generals even offered support to the coup plotters.

Meanwhile, opposition from one or two members has been enough to prevent the admission of democratic East Timor into the bloc, further cementing the image of ASEAN as a collection of autocracies drowning in self-defeating cliches. What ASEAN's apologists tend to forget, however, is that this is not necessarily the ASEAN way.

The regional body has, in fact, shown a remarkable history of dynamic evolution in the face of geopolitical crises. Few would remember, but ASEAN came together under near-impossible circumstances, including the Konfrontasi skirmishes between Indonesia and the emerging Federation of Malaya, as well as the raging Cold War that pit regional states against each other.

Over the succeeding decades, the bloc's mostly Western-aligned founding members managed to not only transcend territorial and maritime conflicts between each other but meaningfully engage with the region's communist-aligned regimes. When ASEAN admitted Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar after the end of the Cold War, it became one of the world's most diverse and inclusive intergovernmental unions in the world.

By the year 2000, ASEAN had finalized a free-trade agreement among member states, with aspirations to drive pan-Asian integration through the ASEAN Regional Forum that quickly became a key platform for institutionalized dialogue among major world powers.

With success came hubris. Built on strategic vision and dynamism, these early and swift successes appear to have instilled a sense of complacency among ASEAN members.

To make itself relevant again, ASEAN must revisit not only its own inspiring history but also its overreliance on unanimity-based decision-making and go back to the so-called ASEAN-minus-X formula, the majority-based process that facilitated the quick and successful finalization of the ASEAN Free Trade Area.

ASEAN would also help itself to better understand the real meaning of consensus by examining the European Union's qualified majority voting system which incorporates the different contributions and relative interests of individual members into the decision-making process.

As ASEAN continues to grapple with the rise of China and the resurgence of authoritarian rule across Asia, what it urgently needs is a reset. Suspending Myanmar while it is under the leadership of unruly generals is a good place to start.

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