Oct 2022

Litmus test

Nik Luqman assesses how far the ongoing conflict in Myanmar is putting ASEAN’S credibility through its paces

It is perhaps not an overstatement to say that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – more commonly known as ASEAN – is often viewed as the anchor of peace and stability in the Southeast Asia region. 

The facts speak for themselves. Since the 1980s, the region has seen a downward trend of interstate conflict or warfare – dubbed ‘the long peace of East Asia’ – on which regional leaders have prided themselves. More remarkably, the indices began to show a decline in conflict after ASEAN was formed.

From an economic viewpoint, ASEAN’s economy thrived after modelling itself on other Asian tigers such as South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as leveraging the international trade system. Interestingly, the bloc now stands among the largest free trade areas (FTAs) globally.

However, against this positive backdrop, the decades of conflict in one of its member states, Myanmar, is holding ASEAN back. 

In the wake of the February 2021 coup, which was engineered by Myanmar’s infamous Tatmadaw, or armed forces, ASEAN’s reaction has been placed under a microscope. Indeed, international attention has turned to the bloc, to see how it steers the ongoing conflict.

ASEAN has devised a peace plan called the Five-Point Consensus (5PC), which calls for five key actions: an immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue towards a peaceful resolution, mediation by the region’s special envoy, the expediting of humanitarian assistance, and visits by a special envoy’s delegation to meet all relevant stakeholders for a comprehensive consultation.

Yet, despite the fact that the 5PC was agreed upon in April last year, the junta shows no signs of heeding it. Myanmar continues to witness ongoing violence and crackdowns, not to mention the execution of pro-democracy activists, announced just days after the ASEAN special envoy concluded his visit to Naypyidaw.

Despite the fact that the 5PC was agreed upon in April last year, the junta shows no signs of heeding it

Dissatisfied with the progress towards peace in Myanmar and a lack of cooperation in implementing the 5PC, despite the ruling military paying lip service to the same on numerous occasions, ASEAN has suspended the Tatmadaw’s foreign minister from participating in its meetings.

To date, according to figures released by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), approximately more than 2,000 protesters have been killed and more than 15,000 arrested, while credible reports have emerged that the military is also routinely torturing dissidents.

This quagmire has greatly damaged ASEAN’s credibility and, to some extent, its centrality in the eyes of the international community. Moreover, it could potentially destroy international hopes for any kind of mediation process to resolve the crisis. 

ASEAN logo
ASEAN is often viewed as the anchor of peace and stability in the Southeast Asia region.
Constructive engagement, ASEAN’s way

In retrospect, it seems that the bloc’s international standing was actually damaged from the time when Burma, as Myanmar was formerly known, was first included as a member state. The country has been under military rule since 1988 and is known to be home to human rights abuses, child labour and drug trafficking, among other misdemeanours.

When Burma was admitted, ASEAN met fierce international condemnation. The West even imposed sanctions on the country after the ruling military launched a large-scale crackdown on domestic opposition.

But ASEAN was adamant, although it realised this was outright defiance against Western powers. The latter, enraged by the decision, cancelled the biannual US-ASEAN Dialogue, the EU Joint Cooperation, ASEAN-EU finance and an economic ministers’ meeting – all amid the region’s struggle at that time with the Asian financial crisis. 

The association’s policy towards Myanmar is generally known as ‘constructive engagement’, whose key objective is to emphasise active political and economic interaction, in order to enhance economic growth and foster political reform in the country.

With financial deals brokered in Myanmar, especially in areas such as oil and gas, manufacturing, infrastructure, telecommunications, agriculture and fisheries, ASEAN had hoped that by promoting these economic reforms, political concessions would be possible.

The bloc had also dispatched its special envoy to push for progress on constitutional reform and the release of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Indeed, constitutional reform is of paramount importance, as there are currently clauses in the constitution that permit military representatives to remain in parliament and sanction broad political powers for the generals.

Moreover, ASEAN encouraged the junta to adopt fellow member state Indonesia’s civil-military mode of governance, a model that Myanmar may consider emulating. 

On the capacity-building front, another bloc member, Singapore, accorded training to Myanmar government officials on the concepts of ‘good governance’ and economic growth, in the hope these will be implemented in Myanmar.

But, despite decades of the bloc’s constructive engagement in Myanmar, the junta still staged a coup against the civilian government last year.

violence during Myanmar’s 2021 coup
SCRUTINISED: ASEAN’s reaction to the coup in Myanmar has been placed under a microscope

When Burma was admitted, ASEAN met fierce international condemnation

Time for ASEAN to change course?

Today, there is mounting international pressure for the regional grouping to further castigate Myanmar. And even within the bloc itself, there is growing displeasure over the spiralling situation in the country.

Yet the junta’s lack of will to support ASEAN’s efforts to bring Myanmar back to a state of normalcy is evident in its continued and systemic suppression in the country.

As of now, in addition to barring the military-appointed foreign minister from attending its summits, the grouping has signalled that stern measures will be put in place, should there be no substantive progress in 5PC when the regional leaders are scheduled to meet in November. 

It is important to remember that this is not the first time ASEAN has reprimanded Myanmar. Back in the 1990s, when there was an international outcry over the displacement of Rohingyas, Myanmar’s regime was blocked from attending bloc meetings until the situation improved. 

ASEAN also sought to ramp up pressure on Myanmar through international institutions. For instance, it supported the appointment of a UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.

Surprisingly, this produced a result, albeit quite a limited one. The military agreed to repatriate the Rohingyas and release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 1995. And, starting in 2011, under the quasi-civilian Thein Sein government, the country saw a series of political and economic reforms, as Suu Kyi’s party made inroads into Myanmar’s parliament.

However, last year’s coup has taken the country back to square one. It has demonstrated the ruling military’s intransigence, and how it is failing to heed ASEAN’s advice.

The bloc’s present and future credibility will be judged based on its approach to the ongoing conflict in Myanmar. The lack of progress in recent years has already tarnished its standing and raised concerns about ASEAN’s ability to tackle this complex situation. 

Moving forward, ASEAN needs to become more assertive in its decision-making, and seek a constructive solution whereby the junta can be persuaded to implement the 5PC swiftly. By doing so, the interests of Myanmar, the wider region and even the junta itself will be best served.

Nik Luqman is an analyst and writer focused on Southeast Asia. Previously, he was a research fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), National University of Malaysia-Nippon Foundation. He tweets @Nluqman