ASEAN has decided not to invite a political representative of Myanmar’s military regime to its annual summit, instead promising to give the seat to a ‘non-political representative’. Former ambassador Nicholas Coppel writes that this modest break with ASEAN’s tradition of non-interference is unlikely to bring about change, but it can help.
ASEAN’s foreign ministers convened in virtual emergency session on 15 October to consider who should represent Myanmar at the bloc’s upcoming annual festival of confabulation centred on the ASEAN Summit. The Summit, to be held on 26-28 October, is the organisation’s supreme policy-making body and is usually attended by Heads of State or Government and is followed by other meetings with regional leaders.
Faced with competing bids to represent Myanmar, the foreign ministers had an emergency on their hands. One bid was from Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the self-styled Prime Minister of Myanmar, who came to power in a bloody coup on 1 February. The other was from the National Unity Government (NUG), established by a group of elected parliamentarians and representatives from ethnic-based parties. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) resoundingly won elections in 2020 but was prevented from forming government by Myanmar’s military. The NUG was formed in response and operates largely in exile.
The ASEAN foreign ministers could not reach a consensus on political representation and decided instead to invite a ‘non-political representative’ to the Summit and associated meetings “to allow Myanmar the space to restore its internal affairs and return to normalcy”. The statement from Brunei’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcing this outcome did not name the non-political representative and did not it indicate whether the representative would be from the junta government in Nay Pyi Taw or the NUG.
ASEAN’s downgrading of the level of Myanmar’s participation would have been a shock to Min Aung Hlaing as he, along with most observers, are habituated to expect ASEAN inability to address difficult internal issues. The ASEAN statement on the day of the coup had recalled the principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter including the adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, and respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It then encouraged the pursuance of “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will of the people”.
In the context of what had happened in Myanmar and compared with a plethora of statements from governments and UN agencies and officials, this was seen as a relatively weak response as it did not even condemn the coup. The vast majority of articles on ASEAN’s response to the coup, from within and outside Myanmar, have been highly critical of the organisation and derided those who have expressed support for ASEAN centrality and efforts to encourage a dialogue among the parties.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi joins regional counterparts for Emergency ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Myanmar - October 15, 2021. Image credit: Retno Marsudi, @Menlu_RI, Twitter.
Overlooked in the criticism of ASEAN efforts as ‘claptrap’ is the modification of the long-cherished principle of non-interference. There are two dimensions to the modification: first ASEAN’s statements are themselves about Myanmar’s internal affairs. When pushed, ASEAN has gone down the path of passing judgment on events within the borders of one member state. Secondly, the attention given to other values and principles embodied in the ASEAN Charter and ASEAN Human Rights Declaration serve to qualify the non-interference principle. ASEAN is, in effect, saying that these are equally important and are not subservient to the non-interference principle. Singapore Foreign Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi have led this shift in emphasis. In comments to the media Balakrishnan threatened to speak unilaterally if ASEAN failed to act.
Eventually, ASEAN did act and convened a special Leaders’ Meeting to discuss the Myanmar crisis, which Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing attended, but was denied the courtesies and symbolism usually extended to a head of government. The meeting produced a five-point consensus: cessation of violence; commencement of constructive dialogue among all parties; appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate mediation of the dialogue; the provision of humanitarian assistance through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management; and a visit to Myanmar by the Special Envoy and delegation to meet all parties.
There was strong international governmental support for a role for ASEAN in ending the Myanmar crisis, including by Australia. However, within Myanmar and among human rights groups there was less enthusiasm for the Consensus and the Special Envoy. Commentators were quick to point out what was not in the Five-Point Consensus, notably no call for the release of political detainees, no condemnation of the coup, no participation in the meeting by the NUG or NLD, and no timeline for implementation. Scepticism seemed well-placed when the military council quickly announced that it would consider ASEAN’s “suggestions” only after the situation stabilised.
These criticisms were prescient. In the six months following the Five-Point Consensus, ASEAN’s Special Envoy was unable to visit Myanmar on acceptable terms, including opportunities to meet all parties as agreed in the Five-Point Consensus. While the violence had eased it had not ceased, as had been agreed, and the distribution of humanitarian assistance continues to face restrictions and other difficulties. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights concluded that the Myanmar military had “displayed a flagrant lack of respect for ASEAN, and in fact since the coup, it appears to have used the bloc to try to gain legitimacy while at the same time increasing its brutal reprisals”.
Foreign interference hasn’t a good track record, but that doesn’t mean nations and individuals should be silent or have no role to play. Engagement and encouraging genuine dialogue are all worthwhile, as are signals of disapproval such as downgrading the level of representation at ASEAN meetings or delaying a decision on who represents Myanmar at the United Nations, even when dealing with a military that are unmoved by sanctions and moral opprobrium. The humiliation when combined with the violence, the suffering and economic incompetence, might move more people in Myanmar, including within the military, to seek change. External pressure itself is unlikely to bring about change, but it can help. Myanmar’s future will be determined by the people of Myanmar. It is with this understanding that we need to assess ASEAN’s efforts.
We need also to take note of the qualifications now emerging in ASEAN’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, the differences these have revealed among the member states and the implications for that other ASEAN-cherished principle, consensus decision making. There is certainly no appetite to abandon what Balakrishnan calls the ‘design features of ASEAN’, but if ASEAN Centrality is to have any strategic significance the world will want to see more diplomatic activism from ASEAN on a range of issues. The impasse over Myanmar shows that not all member states are comfortable with that prospect.
Nicholas Coppel is Adjunct Associate Professor (Practice) at Monash University. He was Australia’s Ambassador to Myanmar from 2015-2018.
Banner image: Chairman of the Myanmar State Administration Council, General Min Aung Hlaing, meets with the President of the Republic of Tatarstan R. N. Minnikhanov, Kazan, Russia - June 25, 2021. Credit: Mikhail Frolov, Wikimedia.