Myanmar crisis shows Asean's limits
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Myanmar crisis shows Asean's limits

An anti-coup protester holds a placard criticising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in Mandalay, Myanmar, on June 5. (Photo: Reuters)
An anti-coup protester holds a placard criticising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in Mandalay, Myanmar, on June 5. (Photo: Reuters)

It is often said that Asean's brand of regionalism is uniquely its own.

In any discussion about the Asean way, the principles of non-interference and consensus are constantly invoked, though unfortunately, not always for the right reasons. Rather, the Asean way should be viewed for what it has achieved.

And the notion of Asean centrality is certainly not a mere slogan but neither is it a given. It has always rested on Asean's capacity to resolve problems and manage the affairs of the region. The fact that Asean has been able to demonstrate that it remains central and relevant on matters of regional peace and prosperity is the principal reason why the major powers have valued their engagement with Asean. It is also why it has been able to play a pivotal role in shaping the regional order.

Inherent in both the concepts of the Asean way and Asean centrality has been the organisation's ability to reconcile the region's diverse political, security and economic interests, in a way that allows for the largely harmonious pursuit of national and regional interests by its members.

Yet in the face of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, the limitations of the Asean way and Asean centrality are coming to light.

From the very beginning, Asean has been seen as lacking in unity, political will and leadership required to respond to the tragedy unfolding in Myanmar. Statements were issued, an emergency meeting of foreign ministers and an unprecedented leaders' meeting were convened -- but there has been little actual progress.

The principle of non-interference in its members' internal affairs has been blamed for much of Asean's dilemma. Indeed, the question of whether, when and how to intervene in the Myanmar crisis has yielded diverse views from its own members.

When the Myanmar military seized power on Feb 1, other Asean states were aware that it would have repercussions on the bloc's credibility, and for the region.

Some observers said the lack of assertive action from Asean reflected the ideological divide between its own members, with some members being more democratic than others in the bloc.

Perhaps, there is some element of truth in that assertion. But for sure, the issues of geographical proximity, national security and economic interests and domestic politics weighed heavily in the minds of Asean policymakers.

Nonetheless, the crisis in Myanmar is a much-needed reality check, in so far as the principle of non-interference in internal affairs is concerned.

Asean's claim to be a rule-based and people-centred regional organisation would be inconsequential if it fails to act in the face of the massive violations of human rights and the atrocities that many have witnessed in Myanmar.

Under the Asean Charter, respect for sovereignty and the principle of non-interference are by no means absolute, and must be considered against the commitments that all of its member states have made to the principles of "democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedom".

It was with these principles in mind that the charter was written beginning with the phrase "We, the people."

These are not just meant to be aspirational goals.

Putting the people at the centre of Asean's community-building efforts means that the Asean way must be expanded beyond espousing the rights of states. It means incorporating the rights of the peoples of Asean as enshrined in the Asean Charter into the organisation's actions. And Asean must not turn its back on the people, at a time when the rights of the Myanmar people and their democratic aspirations are being transgressed by the flagrant actions of the Tatmadaw.

So far, Asean's diplomacy has failed to keep up with the rapidly unfolding events in Myanmar. The country is on the verge of civil strife and civil war. Clearly, the notion of Asean centrality is being called to question.

The crisis in Myanmar could not have come at a worse moment for Asean. The shift in the region's geopolitics, the challenge posed by China's rise and the ensuing major power rivalries between the US and China, have all had the effect of pulling the Asean member states in different directions. The mounting tensions over the South China Sea and the Mekong River have further undermined of the relevance of Asean centrality.

Containing the Covid-19 pandemics and the urgency of promoting economic recovery have preoccupied the attention of Asean governments and leaders. Under such circumstances, domestic priorities take precedence over foreign policy agendas, and national interests trump regional interests.

Against this backdrop, Asean certainly finds itself hard-pressed to muster the cohesion, the political will and leadership needed to collectively deal with the protracted conflict in Myanmar.

The Asean Five-Point consensus agreed at the leaders' meeting almost six months ago remains pretty much in abeyance. The only progress so far has been the appointment of Brunei's second Foreign Minister, Dato Erywan Pein Yusof, as the Asean special envoy on Myanmar. Even that appointment took almost three months to finalise, after much going back and forth among the Asean foreign ministers.

Sensing that Asean is not united, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw have been backtracking on its commitment to the Asean-led peace process.

But the junta would be just deluding themselves by thinking that they can turn back the clock of democracy in Myanmar. The people of Myanmar have made it loud and clear that they have had enough of military rule.

The announcement by the National Unity Government (NUG) declaring a people's war against the military regime is bound to intensify the hostilities even further.

Asean centrality is under pressure both from within and outside. As such, the international community and the major powers have all urged Asean to double its efforts.

For the moment, there seems to be not much hope for a breakthrough. Asean itself is both constrained by complex dynamics of the situation in Myanmar as well its own inherent limitations. Even major powers like the US and China know that they too have limited leverage to influence the course of events in Myanmar given the current stalemate.

If Asean is to maintain any semblance of its centrality, it must press on even if it is tantamount to pursuing alibi diplomacy, as well-known Asean affairs expert Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan has noted.

It is certain that at the upcoming Asean Summit this month, the nine other Asean leaders need think long and hard about what to do next should the Myanmar military remain intransigent and continue to renege on its commitments to peacebuilding.

Indeed, as many have pointed out, the crisis in Myanmar has become Asean's own crisis. Both the Asean way and Asean centrality are subject to stress and strain. Drawing upon the events in Myanmar, Asean will need to rethink its way and find ways to reinvigorate its centrality in the region.

As a community, Asean is at a crossroads.

The organisation must seek to advance its regionalism to a higher level if it is to remain relevant in the face of new challenges, from both within and outside.

Most important of all, in this endeavour, Asean must not fail the people of Myanmar.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow is a former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Secretary-General of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council.

*The article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of ASEANFocus published by the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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