Asean's declining common denominator

Asean's declining common denominator

Foreign ministers and representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are seen on a screen during an informal meeting, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Malaysian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS)
Foreign ministers and representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are seen on a screen during an informal meeting, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Malaysian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS)

Asean is stuck deeper than ever between a rock and a hard place in view of its political impotence in dealing with the Myanmar armed forces' power grab on Feb 1. In an informal meeting online among its foreign ministers earlier this week, Asean not only failed to come up with common ground to broker a way forward away from the mounting bloodshed in Myanmar but displayed fundamental differences that have lowered the organisation's common denominator to new depths. The implications from Asean's sagging stance is that the pushback against Myanmar's military takeover must be carried out mainly by domestic political forces in the absence of regional effectiveness and with the limitations of global sanctions.

Over the past decade, Asean has suffered from increased internal wrangling as its ruling regimes became more divergent, compounded by China's growing assertiveness. On the face of it, regime types and how countries are governed should not matter much for regional cooperation. So what if Brunei is an absolute monarchy and Laos and Vietnam are Marxist-Leninist, while the rest are flawed electoral republics and authoritarian states with electoral camouflage? Indeed, Southeast Asia covers the entire spectrum of regime types. But when ruling regimes diverge more widely, they become more vulnerable to great-power influence and competition from outside, particularly between China and the United States.

When Myanmar's military staged the coup, Asean's immediate reaction, as expressed by Brunei as the rotational chair, was to call for the principles of democracy, rule of law, good governance, and protection of rights and freedoms, as enshrined in the Asean Charter. The initial position also encouraged dialogue, reconciliation, and a return to normalcy based on the will and interests of Myanmar's people.

Over the past five weeks, the Asean Chair's statement has been turned on its head. The Myanmar junta, named the State Administration Council and led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has thumbed its nose at Asean by stealing the democratic mandate from the Nov 8 election that was won massively by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The junta has hunkered down, initiated a brutal suppression campaign, and started what is becoming a killing spree of pro-democracy demonstrators, with a climbing death toll of 50 so far.

As the junta proceeds in the opposite direction from Asean's early call for the protection of rights and freedoms and return to good governance and democratic rule, Southeast Asia's regional organisation should have become more adamant and firmer in its view and resolve. But the opposite is happening. With notable exceptions of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines, the rest of Asean has paid lip service and turned a blind eye to the Myanmar junta's atrocities inside the country.

The lowest common denominator this time is to confine what is happening in Myanmar to Asean's sacrosanct rule of non-interference in domestic affairs of member states. Cambodia and Laos are at the forefront of this position, regardless of how nasty and brutish Myanmar's armed forces become. Others, including Thailand, called for dialogue and downplayed the theft of democracy and arbitrary detention of civilian leaders. The overall Asean statement thus became a call for "all parties to refrain from instigating further violence", even though the Myanmar armed forces have been the sole perpetrator of violence against peaceful civilian protesters.

At the same time, it is clear now that Indonesia is in the Asean driver's seat during this Myanmar crisis. As Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi remarked, "restoring democracy back on track must be pursued" and that "the will, the interest and the voices of the people of Myanmar must be respected". Her unmistakeable view pointed to the adherence to election results from Nov 8. To its credit, Singapore, the largest investor in Myanmar, also made a firm stand when its foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, condemned the use of force against unarmed civilians as "inexcusable".

Representatives of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore -- the main Asean maritime states -- called for the immediate release of NLD leader Ms Suu Kyi as a first step towards dialogue and negotiations. Myanmar's coup has become a new rift for Asean, pitting regimes with a semblance of democratic legitimacy against others with authoritarian characteristics and tendencies. Such a rift enables the Myanmar junta to have some regional recognition in the absence of legitimacy at home and in the capitals of established democracies farther afield.

Political legitimacy aside, Myanmar's junta appears confident it will be able to ride out the storm. It will rely on opportunistic foreign partners and go it alone when necessary. No strangers to pariah status, the ruling generals came of age during the years of international isolation and domestic suppression. North Korea is an example of regime survival, whatever the cost.

This hardening situation can only change from within. Popular dissent and the local Civil Disobedience Movement are likely to be crushed in the short term, reminiscent of bloody confrontations against the military in 1988 and 2007. But as weeks meander into a few months, while economic hardship rises, the political brinkmanship between security forces and civilian protesters could shift. As pressure mounts, as evidenced by small, low-grade defections among army, police and the bureaucracy, the tipping point may come from within the Myanmar military itself.

As Asean's already low common denominator descends some more, the broader international community has a moral obligation to stand with Myanmar's pro-democracy protesters because their popular will has been clearly expressed. This means upping the pressure from outside while the CDM builds within the country. Targeted sanctions against key generals are necessary, even if they are insufficient to overturn the putsch.

The United Nations can impose charges of crimes against humanity and hold the ruling generals to account for the heinous acts against their own people. The United States and China have common ground to return to the status quo prior to the coup, a rare window of bilateral superpower cooperation. Japan's quiet influence among the military leaders and huge role in the economy should be exercised. Outside pressure coupled with internal sacrifices and the kind of will being shown by the CDM could return a new and different outcome not written in the Myanmar military's old playbook.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak is 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.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY

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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