The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has faced an enormous challenge as a result of the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021. The group has come under criticism for failing to address the current situation in Myanmar and for responding ineffectively to the savage crackdown by the regime. Since the military takeover in February 2021, unrest and instability have persisted in Myanmar. In the past year, thousands of people have been harmed, detained, or killed. According to the UN Special Rapporteur report, approximately 1.1 million people have been already displaced because of the coup.
ASEAN’s Historic Action
The founding principles of ASEAN, which were outlined in the 1976 Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, namely: (1) Respect for the independence, interests, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations, (2) The right of every state to lead a presence that is free from external interference, subversion, or coercion, (3) Do not interfere with each other’s internal affairs, (4) Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means, (5) Refusal to the threat or use of force, and (6) Effective cooperation between members. The group was described as standing for “the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through shared efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and posterity the blessings of peace, freedom, and prosperity” in the ASEAN Declaration.
The strategic decision made by ASEAN leaders during the Brunei Chairmanship in 2021 to not invite the Myanmar junta to the ASEAN summit could be considered a symbolic action. Even though this sort of action could not put enough pressure on the junta, it is still somehow considered an alarm of how Myanmar’s unstable political condition appeared to influence the ASEAN’s regional stability. Regarding this banning, the junta responded by holding the fact ASEAN’s founding principles: do not interfere with each other’s internal affairs. Since 2021, the Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has been banned from attending the summits.
To assist in resolving the problem after the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in Jakarta in April 2021, ASEAN has proposed the “ASEAN Five-Point Consensus” (ASEAN 5PC). The 5PC demands: (1) Immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties shall exercise utmost restraint, (2) Constructive dialogue among all parties concerned shall commence seeking a peaceful solution in the interests of the people, (3) A special envoy of the ASEAN Chair shall facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, with the assistance of the Secretary-General of ASEAN, (4) ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance through the AHA Centre, (5) The special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned. This agreement can be assumed as the sole agreement committed by the junta leader so far. Unfortunately, no meaningful and sufficient action has yet been taken in response to any of the facts outlined in the consensus.
In January 2022, the prime minister of Cambodia paid a two-day visit to Myanmar to relaunch peace efforts and release a joint press statement but in fact, no actual progress has been achieved. Malaysian foreign minister commented on the trip “There are people who think that he should not have taken the visit because his visit has been construed or interpreted as a recognition of the military in Myanmar”. Most of the people assumed that the visit was intended not only to justify the junta against the collective will of ASEAN leadership but also to neglect the voice of Myanmar people who are fighting for democracy.
The military regime executed four prominent political activists in July 2022, including Ko Jimmy (Kyaw Min Yu) and former NLD lawmaker Phyo Zeya Thaw, a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi. In August 2022, ASEAN warned that if the generals executed more political detainees, it could have to rethink the arrangement it had made with Myanmar to stop the devastation brought on by the military coup. The military government’s killing of activists was considered to make the current situation worse than it was before the peace deal. It is obvious the junta does not care about the international pressure and revealed their brutal repressive actions against the democratic forces will continue.
Diverse Approaches and Varied Perspectives
Regarding ASEAN policy in regard to the State Administration Council (SAC), the ASEAN Member States appear separated. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, and Indonesia have all scaled back their diplomatic relations with the SAC and rejected its legitimacy. Some of these Member States have also communicated with the National Unity Government in some cases. The SAC has been engaged with Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Thailand, and Vietnam as if it were the Myanmar government. But even some of the countries that have cooperated with the SAC are aware of the junta’s illegitimate status. In a new report issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews said “Even governments that have engaged the SAC, however, recognize the plain truth – the junta lacks legitimacy,” during the consultation for the report, Vietnam revealed that “[C]ontact, exchange and cooperation with Myanmar within bilateral settings or ASEAN frameworks should not be interpreted as or equated with a recognition of the military government or the State Administration Council.”
Although there are some engagements with the junta, the division between member states becomes more significant when some military officials avoid even military-related meetings such as the most recent one – the ASEAN Annual Air Chiefs Conference where only five out of ten attended the conference. The reason behind this is that the junta air force chief Tun Aung, chairman of the conference in Nay Pyi Taw, is mainly responsible for many deadly airstrikes in Sagaing Region and Kachin State. Moreover, it is believed to avoid criticism from the democratic forces and show their standpoint dealing with the relations with the junta.
After over two years, it has been proved that, although it somehow affects the junta, ASEAN 5PC can not put relevant and efficient pressure on the junta to return to a normal stable status in the country. The people of Myanmar have demonstrated a strong willingness to fight by using inadequate hand-made small guns against the regime without taking into account their scarification. The Myanmar military must bear full accountability since the junta was the one who started all of these issues. It is time to take deliberate action against the junta instead of waiting for the situation in Myanmar to get worse.
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