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Can ASEAN overcome the 'Myanmar curse'?

Regional grouping struggles with changing dynamics due to 'pariah' member

Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks on October 26 during the virtual ASEAN summit, from which the head of Myanmar's military regime was barred. (Courtesy of Brunei government)   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- It was a bad week for Myanmar's military regime and a good one for ASEAN, or so it seemed. The bloc drew praise for barring Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's military ruler, from a summit and meetings that took place Tuesday through Thursday, restoring some of the credibility it had lost for its ineffectual handling of the recalcitrant member state. The widespread criticism had been exemplified by the trending Twitter hashtag #uselessASEAN.

With its unprecedented decision to disinvite the head of a member state, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also reset the bar for countries engaging with Myanmar's military regime. Known as the State Administration Council (SAC), the regime is regarded by many critics as illegitimate, having ousted the popularly elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup nine months ago. Since the military takeover, security forces have killed more than 1,220 civilians and imprisoned more than 9,380. Now there is every sign that the violence will escalate as military troops launch fresh "clearance operations" in areas of dissent.

The EU has informally decided to bar the junta chief from the summit of Asian and European countries on Nov. 25 and 26. The decision was made in consultation with Cambodia, the event's host country. "There now seems to be no question of inviting the junta chief to ASEM," the Asia-Europe Meeting, an EU diplomat told Nikkei Asia on Thursday. The summit, held every two years but postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic, involves 51 European and Asian countries, the ASEAN Secretariat and the EU. It will be held virtually. "The issue now is deciding at what level Myanmar could have representation," the diplomat added.

According to six Asian and Western diplomats who spoke to Nikkei Asia after the ASEAN meeting, the bloc's move has set an informal precedent for other countries and multilateral institutions involved in high-level meetings that include Myanmar. "It has definitely made it easier for us to lay down some ground rules for Myanmar engagement, not just to refuse to accept the junta leader but even to insist on 'nonpolitical' representatives at meetings rather than ministers who are junta members," a senior Asian diplomat said.

But there is unease among regional leaders that Myanmar's crisis could be the thin end of a big wedge within ASEAN. In the aftermath of this week's gatherings, the bloc's long-held principle of "noninterference" and tradition of "centrality," or agreement by consensus, unraveled at a pace that surprised longtime ASEAN observers.

The decision to bar Min Aung Hlaing from attending caused deep rifts that were barely papered over at the summit.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, chief of Myanmar's military regime, has caused ASEAN to reassess two of its main principles.   © Reuters

Some member countries, including Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, had argued to maintain the status quo and allow Min Aung Hlaing to attend the summit. But Malaysia and Indonesia, which broke ranks by publicly suggesting the regime leader be disinvited, together with Singapore and the Philippines, favored pulling the general's invitation. The compromise was to invite Myanmar to send a "nonpolitical representative," a notion that was angrily rejected by Myanmar.

The clearest sign that the "Myanmar curse" could permanently change ASEAN's dynamics is the quiet agreement by summit leaders to reassess the noninterference principle and the consensus tradition. There is a more immediate challenge, in the form of the SAC's legal argument, which the regime put to ASEAN through public statements by Myanmar's Foreign Ministry on Oct. 22.

The regime's obsession with legalities was apparent from the start, in its painstaking justifications of its takeover on Feb. 1, alleging massive fraud in the country's elections last November. Now it says the bloc violated the consensus provision of its charter as well as the noninterference principle.

The case, however, is only valid as long as the SAC is recognized as Myanmar's legitimate representative at ASEAN -- and that is the bloc's new dilemma. "This remains indeterminate, or ambiguous at best," said Hoang Thi Ha, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. "Despite its engagements with the SAC, ASEAN has been careful in its official and legal communications to avoid giving the impression that the SAC has de jure recognition from ASEAN." She notes that ASEAN's website lists Kyaw Tin of the elected National League for Democracy government as Myanmar's foreign minister.

Even so, up to now, SAC cabinet members and officials have been attending ASEAN ministerial and working-level meetings as Myanmar's de facto representatives. But Myanmar's presence risked tainting the year-end summitry, jeopardizing the attendance of leaders from partner countries, including the U.S. and South Korea, that have condemned the coup. "The stakes are too high for ASEAN's credibility to run business-as-usual with the SAC at the summits," Hoang said.

Activists hold placards and banners in support of an anti-coup movement in Myanmar near the ASEAN secretariat building in Jakarta, Indonesia, on April 24, 2021.   © Reuters

Myanmar's case could be a moment of truth for ASEAN, which has no real dispute-solving mechanism apart from vaguely worded sections of its charter. "ASEAN prides itself as a 'rules-based organization,'" a veteran Southeast Asian diplomat said. "[But] the truth is, there are no real rules. We make them up as we go along."

ASEAN has lived comfortably with anti-democratic behavior by member states. Myanmar's military regime, however, appears to have crossed an invisible red line in ASEAN's internal diplomacy, and moves to isolate it reflect anger at Min Aung Hlaing's flagrant dismissal of an agreement made with ASEAN leaders during an extraordinary summit in April. At the meeting, called to discuss the takeover, he agreed to a five-point consensus plan that includes ending hostilities, engaging in dialogue, facilitating humanitarian aid and entering mediation with "all stakeholders" led by a special ASEAN envoy. The general later backtracked on the agreement, eventually refusing the special envoy, Brunei's junior foreign minister, access to detained government leaders. The move enraged some ASEAN members, compounding months of paralysis over the bloc's decision to appoint an envoy.

The intensification of violence by Myanmar's security forces, the country's surging COVID-19 infections and growing signs of an economic collapse added to ASEAN's concerns, according to some regional officials. There were also indications that the United Nations might reject the military regime's efforts to appoint its own ambassador to the U.N., ousting the incumbent anti-junta envoy. Most compelling for ASEAN, however, have been recent indications from key dialogue partners, including the U.S., that Myanmar's military chief would not be welcome to join them at their virtual summit.

A volunteer in the town of Kale, Sagaing Region, Myanmar, helps in the fight against COVID. A surge of infections in the country helped ASEAN leaders decide to bar the head of Myanmar's military regime from last week's summit.   © Reuters

"We essentially faced the choice of sacrificing ASEAN's credibility and possibly its highly valued East Asia Summit with dialogue partners in order to protect a coup leader in a failing state," an ASEAN diplomat said. "It seemed an obvious choice."

With characteristic bluntness, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told the ASEAN summit: "The lack of progress in Myanmar has put ASEAN's credibility into question. ... How we respond collectively will either affirm ASEAN's relevance or reveal our impotence. It is up to us to prove that ASEAN is not just a 'talk shop.'"

Veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rejects the notion that ASEAN "lost credibility." He believes ASEAN was used as a "fig leaf" by various governments and institutions to cover the inaction of others.

"Loudly accusing ASEAN of losing credibility over its inability to influence Myanmar is a tactic designed to shift attention to the fact that nobody else has been willing, nor able to do so, either," he told Nikkei Asia. "Everyone is using this trope. Let's just remember, ASEAN will continue, it will be more of the same -- not very exciting but useful and irreplaceable."

No doubt with the credibility issue in mind and his role as upcoming ASEM host, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself accused by critics of undermining human rights in his country, issued a stark warning at the summit, speaking as incoming chair of ASEAN.

"Now we are in the situation of ASEAN-minus-one. That is not because of ASEAN but because of Myanmar itself," he said, noting that the military regime had "abandoned its rights with a boycott" of the summit.

"At the time Cambodia becomes chair of ASEAN next year," Hun Sen added, "I do not know if Myanmar will continue this issue."

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was the bad cop to Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's good cop.   © Reuters

Cambodian officials have indicated that Hun Sen is considering replacing ASEAN's outgoing special envoy for Myanmar with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who is known to have voiced exasperation toward Myanmar's military regime.

With Cambodia a longtime beneficiary of Chinese aid and investment, Hun Sen's warning also suggests Beijing has either indicated indifference or encouraged Phnom Penh to pressure Myanmar's generals. China in recent months has sent mixed signals about its support for Naypyitaw's military regime. Recently, it moved to provide COVID-19 vaccines to rebel-controlled areas of northern Myanmar.

China also has closed all of its border-crossing points with Myanmar, with official media citing pandemic concerns. But the move has hit Myanmar's lucrative cross-border trade and rattled Naypyitaw.

In what could have been a "good cop, bad cop" maneuver, Hun Sen's harsh words were offset by a conciliatory statement from Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. "Myanmar remains a member of the ASEAN family," the bloc's outgoing chair told the summit. "We ... recognized that Myanmar needs both time and political space to deal with its many and complex challenges. We remain committed to supporting Myanmar in its efforts to return to normalcy."

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah says "Myanmar remains a member of the ASEAN family." (Photo courtesy of Brunei government)   © Reuters

Myanmar's military regime, meanwhile, has attempted to offset its challenge to ASEAN's decision to disinvite its chief with a separate statement claiming it would "constructively cooperate" with ASEAN and move toward implementing the five-point consensus.

"We know we have a longer-term problem," an ASEAN diplomat said, "a member that is increasingly regarded as a pariah state."

Apart from rethinking its internal procedures and principles, ASEAN must recognize it has reached something of a turning point in its engagement with Myanmar, said Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director of the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue. He believes the group should heed growing calls to begin accepting or at least engaging with the National Unity Government of Myanmar, led by ousted lawmakers and members of Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD administration, which the regime has outlawed and labeled a "terrorist organization."

Another factor will be the entry of Noeleen Heyzer, a former U.N. undersecretary general who has been appointed as the new U.N. special envoy on Myanmar, replacing Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner-Burgener. A veteran Singaporean diplomat and negotiator with years of experience in dealing with Myanmar, she could perhaps act as a bridge between Myanmar and the international community and help ASEAN shore up its diplomatic efforts toward its troublesome member state. She is known as dynamic and ambitious, but some commentators suggest her biggest challenge will be acting as a team player.

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