Myanmar coup: Asean's new fault line

Myanmar coup: Asean's new fault line

Protesters hold signs as they take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Wednesday. (Photo: AFP)
Protesters hold signs as they take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Wednesday. (Photo: AFP)

Already geopolitically divided by China's regional assertiveness, Asean is now facing a new fault line from Myanmar's recent military coup. Just like its divergent views toward China, Asean's mixed preferences toward the Myanmar armed forces' abrupt seizure of power on Feb 1 threaten to further weaken Southeast Asia's 10-member grouping and marginalise its role as the central organising vehicle for regional peace and stability.

Asean's internal differences are exhibiting a similar pattern. On Beijing's belligerence in the South China Sea and its unilaterally constructed and weaponised string of artificial islands in areas claimed by smaller neighbours, the more authoritarian an Asean state, the more it tends to accommodate China, with the major exception of Vietnam. This means Beijing can firmly count on Cambodia's electoral one-party state and Laos' top-down Communist Party rule as regional clients. As an absolute monarchy, Brunei is in proximity, while authoritarian-leaning Thailand is not far behind in this mix. But polities with a semblance of democratic rule and electoral legitimacy in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore are more wary and sceptical of Beijing's intentions in their neighbourhood.

While Vietnam and China are alike in their entrenched Communist Party rule with robust mutual economic interdependence, Hanoi and Beijing have been at loggerheads on geopolitical and geo-economic grounds. China's invasive South China Sea undertakings and unilateral construction of upstream dams on the Mekong River have riled the Vietnamese in both maritime and mainland domains. Until the coup in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar under ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi had an uneasy but workable relationship with the Chinese leadership. China needed Myanmar's vast natural resources, especially natural gas and its geostrategic corridor to the Indian Ocean, whereas Myanmar cannot have internal peace in its northern borderlands without Beijing's cooperation.

The blatant subversion of the Nov 8 election results and overthrow of Ms Suu Kyi's civilian government by the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's armed forces are called, have complicated and compounded Asean's internal differences. On the one hand, this coup was so naked and raw that Asean will be hard-pressed to exercise regional damage control. To be sure, the Tatmadaw simply took over the government after its proxy political party lost a second election in a landslide in as many attempts to Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party.

At a minimum, the junta, led by Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing must release civilian leaders who have been arbitrarily detained during the coup. And then the Nov 8 poll results must somehow be honoured. This is a daunting deal entirely of the Tatmadaw's own making. Reversing the coup and restating the poll results just about precludes any kind of compromise Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing can accept.

On the other hand, Asean must be seen to be doing something. As Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who is leading Asean's mediation efforts, has put it, "to do nothing is not an option". Yet doing something ultimately comes down to one of two main outcomes. Either Asean rejects the coup and snubs the junta or the grouping betrays the popular mandate from the ballot box and abandons the Myanmar demonstrators who are putting their lives on the line in a post-coup showdown against the Tatmadaw.

So far, Asean's efforts have not been impressive. Initially, the Indonesian envoy was scheduled to promote dialogue and engage the junta on its turf. Confronted with a local outcry of being seen to acquiesce to the putsch, Ms Retno changed tack and met Myanmar Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok, hosted by Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's diplomatic backing.

At issue is whether the coup is allowed to stand, and whether the Tatmadaw is to negotiate from a position of strength with the military takeover as a fait accompli. Indonesia needs to tread carefully. Suggestions of holding another election are a bad omen, and will discredit not just Asean but also Indonesia. The election results from Nov 8 must be the starting point of any dialogue for Asean to maintain credibility in view of the Asean Charter's stipulations of democratic governance and fundamental freedoms.

In addition, there is a moral obligation from regional peers and the international community to stand with the hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Myanmar protesters nationwide. Selling out the Myanmar people and sucking up to the junta-led Tatmadaw will incur irreparable damage to Asean's standing.

In the past, Thailand would have taken a lead role in mediation and dialogue, especially because it has the highest stakes in Myanmar's domestic politics compared to other Asean members. But Thailand's current royalist-conservative regime is also spawned by a more sophisticated coup that involved pro-military street protests and assisting agencies and judicial bodies to give it a facade of legitimacy.

With strong military credentials, the Prayut-led government is in no position to entice the Tatmadaw to settle for a democratic outcome. This is why Thailand's response to Myanmar's coup has been conspicuously tempered, sitting on the Asean fence of "non-interference" in domestic affairs of fellow member states. A more charitable view would allude to the Prayut government's concern over Thailand's energy insecurity. With Myanmar's gas imports indispensable for Thailand's electricity generation, the Tatmadaw can turn off the tap at will, if the Thai authorities cry foul over the coup.

All of this leaves Myanmar under precarious and combustible circumstances and Asean as ineffectual and trapped by its own authoritarian upsurge. If the balance of regional regimes had not slid away from democratisation towards authoritarianism so dramatically over the past two decades, Asean could impose more peer pressure on Myanmar's junta. Unless Indonesia is willing to do the heavy lifting through shuttle diplomacy and somehow turn back the coup in favour of dialogue with the Nov 8 poll results as the agenda setter, Myanmar's putsch will likely become a lose-lose outcome for Asean's credibility and centrality.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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