Thai experts on Myanmar are urging Asean to reconsider its policy of non-interference so as to solve the political crisis in Myanmar, saying the bloc should be more pro-active in ensuring the junta's adherence to the five-point consensus agreed earlier in the year.
The academics' call came after Asean's foreign affairs ministers took the bold step of disinviting Myanmar's junta leader, Min Aung Hlaing, from the Asean summit to be chaired by Brunei from Tuesday to Thursday.
Instead, the ministers decided to invite a "non-political representative" from Myanmar to attend the virtual meetings -- a move decried by the junta, which said it was "extremely disappointed" by the snub.
The junta said Myanmar's head of state has the same right as other government leaders to participate in the regional summit.
Two academics sat down with the Bangkok Post to discuss what they think is the best course of action in Myanmar.
The head of the International Relations Department of Thammasat University's Faculty of Political Science, Pinitbhand Paribatra, said while it wasn't the first time the regional grouping has expressed its displeasure with the regime in Myanmar, Asean has never been upfront about it.
"[The snub] is a departure from Asean's policy of non-interference, which they have staunchly followed since the bloc was established. It is a clear signal that its members aren't happy with Myanmar's behaviour," ML Pinitbhand said.
Thailand's stance on the Feb 1 coup in Myanmar has been "disappointingly weak", as the government hasn't clearly outlined its position on the matter -- despite the fact that a prolonged stalemate there will have a spill-over effect on the entire region, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Without a clear position on the crisis, Thailand is upholding the principle of non-interference. But the government must remember that non-interference can't be used to argue for inaction in the face of a regional humanitarian crisis," he said.
ML Pinitbhand said Thailand should support the implementation of Asean's five-point consensus on Myanmar agreed on April 24, which called on the immediate cessation of violence, for a dialogue involving all concerned stakeholders and the appointment of an Asean special envoy, who was supposed to meet all parties in the political crisis.
However, since the Feb 1 coup, the Myanmar junta has not granted the special envoy access to carry out his task. In fact, Asean hasn't been able to send a team to assess the situation on the ground, which is needed before it can send much-needed humanitarian aid.
"In fact, Asean should go beyond the five-point consensus. The bloc should take tougher measures, such as disinviting the Myanmar junta from future summits -- or even by acknowledging the National Unity Government [NUG] as a legitimate representative -- until the junta agrees to sit down for a discussion," he said.
Also, he said, Thailand should boost the work of the Asean special envoy, as doing so will help ensure humanitarian aid can reach its targets, which in turn will help prevent a crisis right on the border.
Lastly, Thailand -- as Myanmar's closest neighbour -- should tell the junta in Nay Pyi Taw that its actions are not sustainable.
"Like a good friend, Thailand should warn Myanmar to follow the Asean five-point consensus, otherwise it would be in further trouble," ML Pinitbhand said.
An expert on Myanmar from Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science, Anekchai Rueangrattanakorn, agreed with ML Pinitbhand, saying Thailand has the ability to bring Myanmar back to the discussion table -- and it should do so as the rest of the bloc are split on how Asean should proceed.
While Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are keen to pressure the junta to respect the consensus, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are singing a different tune.
The Philippines, he added, is facing a human rights inquiry of its own while Brunei, as Asean chair, has its hands tied because as facilitator, it cannot alienate Myanmar entirely by publicly airing its problems.
However, Mr Anekchai said, despite being Myanmar's closest neighbour, Thailand isn't doing enough to help resolve the crisis.
"The Thai government likes to call it 'quiet diplomacy', but I think it is far too quiet," he said.
He also said Thailand isn't likely to criticise the Myanmar junta about its conduct after the Feb 1 coup, especially considering the circumstances under which the current Thai government came to power.
This bond between coup-makers can be seen in the recent visit by Thai government representatives to mark Myanmar's Armed Forces Day on March 27, he said.
"Min Aung Hlaing was the first foreign representative to meet Tanasak Patimapragorn, an NCPO [National Council for Peace and Order] deputy leader after Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha staged a coup [in 2014]," he added.
Mr Anekchai said the government should understand that the policy of non-interference cannot be used to justify not helping those who needed it the most, especially when there is a real prospect of a humanitarian crisis right across the border.
He urged the government to provide more humanitarian aid under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle, saying the government doesn't need to worry that its aid would be misconstrued as picking a side in the crisis in Myanmar.
"The aid is intended for citizens who are shut out from basic necessities and services," he said. "As a neighbouring country, we can help those in need outside of the Asean framework and it won't be considered as interfering with Myanmar's sovereignty."
Mr Anekchai warned that inaction on the part of the government can lead to a refugee crisis whose effect would be felt not just in Thailand, but across Southeast Asia.
"The fact that this is happening during the Covid-19 pandemic makes it more dire. Many Myanmar citizens are having problems accessing basic services, and an outbreak there will threaten Thailand.
"Therefore, it is necessary to assist Myanmar by providing aid, such as Covid-19 test kits," he said.