from Asia Unbound

ASEAN’s Myanmar Crisis

An anti-coup protester walks past burning tires after activists launched a "garbage strike" against the military rule, in Yangon, Myanmar March 30, 2021.
An anti-coup protester walks past burning tires after activists launched a "garbage strike" against the military rule, in Yangon, Myanmar March 30, 2021. Stringer/Reuters

With the situation in Myanmar disintegrating into chaos, and Myanmar possibly becoming a potential failed state, some regional powers, including the United States and Australia, have taken significant actions against the junta government. Australia has suspended military cooperation with the Myanmar military, and the Joe Biden administration has implemented a broad range of targeted sanctions against the junta and many of its businesses. Taiwan, which has significant investments in the country, has passed a parliamentary motion condemning the situation in Myanmar and calling on the junta to restore democracy. (Japan, historically reticent to take a tough approach toward Naypyidaw, has taken a more passive approach, calling on the Myanmar junta to restore democracy and having its defense head join a call rejecting the coup but so far not taking stronger moves.)

But Southeast Asian states, which have some of the greatest leverage over Naypyidaw—and certainly among the most to lose if Myanmar becomes totally unstable, with refugees flowing out of the country and conflicts possibly spanning borders—have done little about the crisis. Many regional states have remained silent on the coup and the atrocities, or have expressed mild concern. Indonesia has been an important exception, with President Joko Widodo condemning the violence and pushing for an emergency Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which seems in the works, but with no fixed date yet even as Myanmar unravels.

More on:

Southeast Asia

Myanmar

Regional states claim they want to keep communication lines to Myanmar open, which is reasonable, but they have taken few other measures to address the crisis. As in many other crises, ASEAN remains torn, and with so many of its states now run by outright authoritarians or illiberal leaders who came to power in democratic elections, most of the region does not want to take a tough approach to the crisis.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations could suspend Myanmar, as some analysts like Elina Noor have suggested, because of the coup—the African Union has suspended countries like Mali after coups—but ASEAN is highly unlikely to take such a step, and is unwilling to abandon its principle of noninterference. If ASEAN does not suspend Myanmar, many leading democracies may decline to join meetings with ASEAN, like the East Asia Summit, where Myanmar junta representatives attend. The organization will seem powerless to affect events in its region, a further sign of ASEAN’s diminishment—even though, as others have noted, many countries outside Southeast Asia have looked to ASEAN to mediate in the crisis and help come up with solutions.

There are virtually no signs the situation in Myanmar is going to improve any time soon. The junta recently refused to allow the UN special envoy for Myanmar to visit the country, the civilian death toll is spiraling, and a new criminal charge has been laid against Aung San Suu Kyi. The prospect of a national civil war, much broader than the existing conflicts in Myanmar, seems high. This is now almost surely ASEAN’s greatest crisis since the war in then-East Timor in the late 1990s and the financial crisis that rocked Southeast Asia at around the time. Since then, ASEAN has had triumphs, like building the ASEAN Economic Community. If individual ASEAN member-states, and the organization, continue to do virtually nothing as Myanmar becomes a failed state, what credibility will the organization have left?

More on:

Southeast Asia

Myanmar