Why is the Myanmar crisis such a challenge for ASEAN?

ASEAN foreign ministers meet a week after Myanmar hanged four opponents of the military regime [Vincent Thian/AP Photo]

ASEAN ministers meet a week after the military executed four activists, but look unlikely to take a tougher line on the regime.

Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are meeting in Phnom Penh, a week after Myanmar’s coup leaders executed four opponents in an act that shocked the world.

ASEAN criticised the killings, but the National Unity Government (NUG) of elected politicians who were overthrown by the military and coup opponents, as well as rights groups, are calling for more concrete action from the 10-nation group, which admitted Myanmar as a member in 1997.

Myanmar was plunged into crisis when army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power in a coup in February 2021, triggering mass protests and armed resistance.

A few months later, he was invited to a specially-convened ASEAN meeting in Jakarta where a plan to end the violence and help resolve the crisis was agreed.

The military, which calls itself the State Administration Council (SAC), has ignored the so-called Five Point Consensus that was reached, and the death toll in the military’s crackdown on its opponents has risen to more than 2,000 people.

The SAC has also not allowed ASEAN’s special envoy to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically-elected leader they removed in the coup.

“ASEAN member states must recognize that the Myanmar military has become a criminal organization that is holding hostage the whole of the country’s population,” Eva Sundari, a former member of the House of Representatives in Indonesia and a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said in a statement on Tuesday. “Min Aung Hlaing has been given too much time to comply with the Five-Point Consensus, yet he has only shown that he respects neither the agreement nor ASEAN itself. It is time for him and his henchmen to pay the consequences.”

Here is what you need to know about ASEAN, Myanmar and the challenges of the relationship.

Why was the group established?

ASEAN was established in 1967 with five founding members: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

It was the height of the Cold War and Southeast Asian countries, only recently freed from colonial rule, wanted to protect their hard-won sovereignty.

The so-called ASEAN Declaration proclaimed the group as representing “the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity”.

The five were fearful not just of the advance of communism but also of becoming pawns in the schemes of larger powers.

There were regional sensitivities too, exemplified by the ‘Confrontation’ that was begun by Indonesia in opposition to the creation of Malaysia and ended just before ASEAN was founded.

As a result, the group’s key principles were decision-making by consensus and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs.

“It’s a very risk averse organisation,” Thomas Daniel,  a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy and Security Studies Programme at ISIS-Malaysia told Al Jazeera. “It’s not known for making bold gestures but for taking incremental steps.”

The country that holds the chairmanship is also key. When the coup happened, the tiny Borneo monarchy of Brunei was in the chair. Now it is Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has outlawed the opposition and jailed dozens of activists and politicians.

Many have high expectations for Indonesia which is due to take the chair for 2023.

When did Myanmar join?

Myanmar became a full member of ASEAN in July 1997 (PDF) – alongside Laos – despite concerns in the United States and Europe about the human rights record of a country that had been a military dictatorship since 1962.

Thailand and the Philippines were also wary, but in the end gave way to ASEAN ‘unity’.

With 10 members, “the potential will be tremendous. We will be a significant player in Asia and in the world,” then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said of the need to expand the organisation.

ISIS-Malaysia’s Daniel says there was a sense that it was better to have Myanmar inside the grouping than outside given its strategic importance.

Protesters holding placards about human rights during a rally against Myanmar joining ASEAN in 1997
There were protests against Myanmar joining ASEAN in 1997 with civil society raising questions about the then military regime’s human rights record [File: Reuters]

Even after joining ASEAN, the then military leaders showed little inclination to change although ASEAN continued its brand of quiet diplomacy and low-key dialogue.

In 2003, a mob attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy, but instead of arresting the perpetrators it was Aung San Suu Kyi who was back under arrest. The US and European Union further tightened sanctions while ASEAN’s special envoy attempted to mediate. The resistant generals were forced to give up their turn as chair in 2005.

Two years later, the Saffron Uprising was violently suppressed.

Lina Alexandra, a senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, says ASEAN leaders failed to understand the Myanmar military and its motivations.

“They thought this military was kind of the same [as other militaries in the region],” Alexandra told Al Jazeera. “That they are a kind of political animal and that they wouldn’t go to extremes and from time to time could be pacified. That was the miscalculation.”

How did ASEAN respond to the 2021 coup?

Myanmar’s armed forces detained Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her newly-elected government on the morning that the country’s new parliament parliament was due to convene.

They claimed they had to seize power because of supposed irregularities in the November 2020 election that returned Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party to power in a landslide — and left the military-linked party struggling for support.

The coup triggered outrage among people in Myanmar, particularly the younger generation who had grown up in a country that had been in a process of democratic transition for a decade.

The military responded to their peaceful protests with force and as the death toll mounted, ASEAN invited Min Aung Hlaing to a special meeting in Jakarta where the so-called Five Point Consensus was agreed.

CSIS’s Alexandra says the agreement has been “blatantly ignored by the military junta”.

Brunei, then chair of the group, appointed a special envoy as agreed, but he was not allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi.

Nor was the envoy appointed by Cambodia when the chairmanship passed to Phnom Penh, even though Prime Minister Hun Sen was the first foreign leader to visit the country since the coup.

Prak Sokhonn, Cambodia foreign minister and ASEAN special envoy on Myanmar, shakes hands with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing on a visit to Myanmar
Cambodian Foreign Minister and ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar Prak Sokhonn (left) shakes hands with military chief Min Aung Hlaing during a visit to Myanmar in June. The military’s foreign minister is on the right. Neither have been allowed to attend ASEAN summits [Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry via AP Photo]

In comments published in Myanmar state media this week, Min Aung Hlaing blamed COVID-19 and “political instability” for his failure to implement the consensus, even though the latter was supposed to address the crisis caused by the coup.

“Our country was forced to make strenuous efforts to overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic while dealing with violent riots and terrorism,” he said in a speech reprinted in the Global New Light of Myanmar on Tuesday.

Will the executions change ASEAN’s response?

Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former NLD legislator, and Kyaw Min Yu, a prominent democracy activist better known as ‘Ko Jimmy’, were hanged on July 25, after a closed-door trial.

Two other men were also executed, accused of killing a military informant.

The executions were the first in Myanmar since the 1980s and took place despite appeals for clemency from across the world. More than 100 people have been sentenced to death — 70 of them are in jail in Myanmar; the rest sentenced in absentia.

“This is something that this junta has done that previous military regimes have not,” Moe Thuzar, the co-ordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told a regional conference on Myanmar last week. “One has to wonder is this salvo by the SAC targeted at the resistance and the broader international community? Is this just the beginning?”

As ASEAN chair, Cambodia issued a statement saying it was “extremely troubled and deeply saddened” by the killings, and criticised the timing — so close to the ASEAN meeting as “reprehensible”.

ASEAN’s response so far is definitely not enough,” said CSIS’s Alexandra. “It’s shameful. The statement from the chair [after the executions]  was very soft, weak. It didn’t even use the word ‘condemn’ after the act by the junta.”

Myanmar's Defense Minister Mya Tun Oo in his uniform attending an Asean defence ministers' meeting in June 2022
Myanmar’s military-appointed Defence Minister Mya Tun Oo attended the 16th ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) in Phnom Penh in June [File: Heng Sinith/AP Photo]

Reports on Tuesday suggested ASEAN could push for a harder line.

A draft communique obtained by the AFP news agency said that ministers would voice “deep concern” over recent developments in Myanmar and call for “concrete action” on the implementation of the Five Point Consensus.

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has been among the most outspoken on Myanmar.

He described the executions as a “crime against humanity” that showed the “junta was making a mockery of the Five Point Consensus”.

Malaysia has suggested SAC officials be banned from all ASEAN events rather than just the top summits, while Saifuddin has suggested the group act as a “facilitator” to bring all sides together. The ASEAN special envoy, he said, should meet representatives of the NUG.

“I am of the opinion that ASEAN needs to have a framework that has an end game and lays out the matters/processes required to achieve that end game,” he wrote in a statement on July 31. “The end game is a democratic, inclusive and just, peaceful and harmonious, prosperous Myanmar whose civil and political rights are guaranteed by the Constitution.”

What if there is no action?

The political crisis triggered by the coup is one of the biggest challenges to ASEAN in recent times.

Crafting a response risks exposing differences within an organisation whose states run from the authoritarian to what the Economist Intelligence Unit terms ‘flawed’ democracies.

A recent statement on Myanmar from the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) exposed some of those differences. It noted that a “consensus could not be reached” so the statement to “strongly condemn” the activists’ executions was being made only by the representatives of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

There is also the question of the SAC itself. The military has long been wary of external powers, and Min Aung Hlaing has continued to cultivate relations with Russia and China, although his speech this week hinted that Myanmar also remained committed to ASEAN.

“This year, as the situation has improved on all fronts, we are implementing the ASEAN Five Point Consensus to the extent that we can within the ASEAN framework,” he said, adding that the SAC was “striving to prevent any encroachment” on its internal affairs.



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