On February 1, Myanmar’s military seized control of the government, arresting dozens of elected leaders in the process and marking the end of the country’s 10-year failed experiment in democracy. The coup sparked protests across the country, and the military’s attempts to stem the rapidly growing insurgency have resulted in over 800 deaths so far. For Myanmar—whose short history has been marked by various pro-democracy movements followed by brutal military crackdowns—there is little likelihood of the violence coming to an end. 

Still, the international community was quick to respond. As the small Southeast Asian nation began making global headlines, various governments began solidifying their statements of condemnation with policy actions controlling the flow of capital. The United States, the EU, Britain, and Canada are among the many Western countries that have imposed financial and travel sanctions targeting the top ranks of the Burmese military. Notably missing from this list of governments sanctioning Myanmar are itsclosest neighbours, such as Thailand. Unfortunately, western sanctions serve as little more than a slap on the wrist for a country that has been battered and isolated by sanctions for most of its independence. Short of military intervention, there is little the international community can do to put pressure on a country that does not participate in global trade and whose leaders do not care if their population starves. That does not mean we should rule out diplomacy: perhaps a regional effort should be prioritized.

The concept of ‘regional solutions to regional problems’ is not a new one. In fact, it is at the heart of supranational organizations like the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) and the African Union. From a desire to combat the West’s heavy-handed influence in their regions, and with the lessons of colonialism still fresh in nations’ memories, ASEAN was born. 

Originally founded in 1967 by Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia, ASEAN has now expanded to include ten member states, with a combined GDP of USD 3 trillion and a total population of 650 million. Although a significant player on the global stage, ASEAN’s influence remains dwarfed by that of the United States, the EU, NATO, and China. Still, it is unique in its ability to bring together such a disparate region. While EU states, often compared to ASEAN as a similar regional, supranational body, at least share a commitment to democratic values, ASEAN members vary as much in political systems as they do in socio-economic status, development goals, religion, and population. The real value of ASEAN lies in its ability to provide a forum for cooperation between Thailand’s military government and Singapore’s parliamentary democracy — the latter which has a GDP per capita close to ten times that of Thailand’s. 

Recognising the historical backdrop within which ASEAN was founded, and the present context of Southeast Asia is key to understanding the organisation’s principle of non-interference. 

ASEAN was created in the midst of the Cold War with the primary aim of preventing the region’s involvement in the power struggle between the East and West. Coupled with a history of colonialism and numerous attempts by China to wield power within the region, the principle of non-interference became fundamental to ASEAN’s policy decisions for the next half-century.

Given the still fragile socio-political order in many Southeast Asian countries — the coup in Myanmar being one such example — ASEAN’s commitment to respecting the sovereignty of its member states has allowed it to maintain open diplomatic channels and continue promoting economic development goals within the region. 

This historical and regional context perhaps explains why ASEAN has yet to take a strong, unified stance against the military’s actions in Myanmar. As the west continues to slap sanction after sanction to little effect, ASEAN leaders have chosen a different route.

On April 24, ASEAN held a special summit in Jakarta in an effort to resolve the Myanmar crisis. Notably, Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, Ming Aung Hlaing, attended in-person, marking his first foreign trip since he took over as leader of the country after the coup in February. Still, while ASEAN has been more successful than most in engaging top members of the Burmese military —those actually in the position to stop the violence and cede control back to democracy—the summit could not have charitably been called a success. Although ASEAN leaders, including Hlaing, agreed to a “five-point consensus” to de-escalate the situation in Myanmar, the plan, which included the immediate cessation of violence, still has not come to fruition. Instead, Myanmar’s military junta collectively issued a statement after the summit that hinted on an escalation, noting that their priority was to ‘maintain law and order.’

Further, ASEAN has drawn criticism from both the international community and the Burmese population—including protestors and the country’s former democratically elected ruling party. And while ASEAN is frequently criticized by the West for their unwillingness to intervene in issues of regional security, stability, and human rights, it seems as though this time ASEAN’s actions have actually worsened the situation.

Many fear that including Hlaing in the summit, and excluding members of the former ruling party or protest leaders, will only bring legitimacy to junta rule. The General Strike Committee, a coalition of student leaders and political parties in Myanmar that are coordinating the opposition against the junta, spoke out against the summit noting that the results of the ASEAN summit “do not reflect the views and voices of the Myanmar people and will not solve the political crisis in Myanmar.” They will in fact “be a major obstacle to building a future federal democratic union that the people aspire to.”

As civil strife continues in Myanmar, the ASEAN way is slowly losing supporters, both internationally and within the region itself. Former Thailand foreign minister, Kasit Piromaya stated that ASEAN risked losing all credibility if they failed to turn the tide in Myanmar. 

This is the second time in less than a decade that all eyes are pointed towards ASEAN. In 2015, as Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar to escape persecution by the Burmese military — a situation that the UN dubbed a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” — ASEAN turned a blind eye. Maintaining their commitment to respect the sovereignty of their member nations, ASEAN refused to intervene in what it deemed a ‘domestic’ situation. By 2017, nearly a half a million Rohingya refugees had fled the country, resulting in Southeast Asia’s worst refugee crisis in almost 50 years. 

If ASEAN similarly continues their policy of non-interference given the escalating violence and protests as a result of the coup, many fear Myanmar will devolve into civil strife and end up as a failed state. Not only will this lead to an outpouring of refugees into ASEAN states – creating a refugee crisis that could rival the one in 2017 — it will significantly hurt ASEAN’s global reputation and legitimacy. 

While the ASEAN way may have been necessary to unite a region divided by socio-economic levels, political systems, and ethnic groups, and appropriate in a post-colonial, Cold War era, it has become outdated in today’s globalized world. A second Myanmar crisis would be a failure that ASEAN cannot come back from. Fortunately, ASEAN is well-placed to put pressure on junta leaders. Singapore and Thailand are Myanmar’s closest trade and business partners with billions in foreign investment flowing in from both countries. A carrot and stick approach combining the threat of sanctions while taking advantage of the close personal relationships between leaders of these countries could be enough to “turn the tide” in Myanmar and restore ASEAN’s credibility. 

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