he credibility of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be tested on April 24 when leaders of all the 10 countries of the bloc will meet in Jakarta to tackle the crisis arising out of the military coup in Myanmar on February 1 and the bloody repression by the junta on the country’s pro-democracy supporters. The head of the junta General Min Aung Hlaing is also scheduled to attend the mini-summit.
It was President Joko Widodo of Indonesia who initiated the move after an informal meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on March 19 which issued an appeal to the junta to stop the violence that fell on deaf ears. Widodo’s proposal for the mini-summit was supported by China and Russia, signalling ASEAN’s greater role in coordinating a response to the grim situation threatening regional stability. Both the countries are veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council that previously blocked a call for sanctions against Myanmar’s post-coup regime.
With chaos gripping Myanmar, the country is facing a bleak future. It embraced a hybrid democracy in which the military had a considerable say in the country’s constitutional mechanism. It was taking baby steps to become a democratic nation under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi whose party National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the 2020 November election, trouncing the party propped up by the junta.
While the USA, Australia and European countries have taken tough measures by way of sanctions against the junta following the coup, India’s position has been ambivalent. It has stopped short of calling the military takeover a coup and even attended a military parade in Myanmar’s capital city Naypyitaw on March 27 to mark Tatmadaw Day. Myanmar’s military is called Tatmadaw.
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 called on the junta to restore democracy.
Southeast Asian states, which have some of the greatest leverage over Naypyitaw, are among the most to lose if Myanmar becomes unstable, with refugees flowing out of the country and conflicts spanning borders. But, they have, so far, done little to defuse the crisis. Many regional states have remained silent on the coup and the atrocities. The junta has sought to quell the anti-coup movement with lethal force, killing more than 720 people and detaining some 3,100 activists, journalists and dissidents, according to a local monitoring group. Hundreds have crossed the international border to take refuge in Mizoram. The state government immediately received the fleeing pro-democracy supporters and security personnel facing crackdown for ethnic affinities. Chief Minister Zoramthanga has called the military persecution a grave humanitarian crisis. The BJP government at the Centre is, however, doing diplomatic tightrope walking issuing directives to the bordering states to push back the people from Myanmar seeking shelter. India doesn’t want to antagonise the junta fearing the latter may stop continuing to support efforts to contain insurgents operating from across the border.
The increasingly brutal and violent crackdown on the anti-coup protest movement triggered a chorus of international condemnation mounting pressure on ASEAN to take a leading role in addressing the crisis. The European Union is learnt to have agreed to impose sanctions on a fresh batch of 10 individuals linked to the coup and the ensuing crackdowns, along with the two large military-run conglomerates – Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation – that have already been targeted by the United Kingdom and the United States. South Korean steel manufacturer POSCO also announced that it was severing its business ties with MEHL, becoming the latest foreign firm to reconsider its presence in Myanmar in the wake of the post-coup violence.
Myanmar has laid bare the ASEAN’s shortcomings, threatening its much publicised claim to “centrality” in the region’s diplomacy. The fact that it is holding a meeting over two months after the coup is being construed by some observers as a tacit admission of this inherent weakness of the bloc.
Even so, there are misgivings about any tangible outcome emerging out of the special meeting. This is partly due to the ASEAN’s current structure and operating principles, which prize consensus above all else. Such a consensus is likely to elude the bloc in the case of Myanmar, as several individual ASEAN member states still insist on treating the crisis as the nation’s own “internal affair.” It must be added that an organisation like ASEAN, perforce, has to operate under the basic guideline umbrella of consensus. Without a united opinion, none of the member countries enjoy the economic and military strength to enforce a fragmented view.
When ASEAN foreign ministers met by video link to discuss the coup at the beginning of March, the resultant joint statement was disappointing. It failed to mention Myanmar until the eighth of the ten points contained in the statement. However, ASEAN’s most important advantage is its potential ability to bring both sides to the negotiating table. But, if neither side is interested in negotiating, the other nine Southeast Asian nations can’t do much about it. The mini-summit may end up according legitimacy to the coup for the willingness of the bloc to sit down with General Hlaing.