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Myanmar crisis: Is this the beginning of the end of ASEAN?

14/03/2022

Myanmar crisis: Is this the beginning of the end of ASEAN?

By Kasit Piromya

A region that’s long been accustomed to natural disasters is now suffering from seismic activity of the diplomatic kind – one that threatens to break up the regional architecture of Southeast Asia.

The tectonic rift at the foundation of ASEAN continues to worsen, with the interests of the more democratic-leaning founding members on one hand and those of more recent authoritarian member states on the other. The question before us is: If ASEAN continues to pull itself apart and sinks into irrelevance, what will take its place?

Few may have noticed this shift in political ground. ASEAN has little relevance in the daily lives of most people in Southeast Asia, so despite the critical issues it deals with, it trudges along with many unaware of its weaknesses.

It takes a catastrophe, like the one that has exploded and smoldered in Myanmar for the past year, for it to become clear that if it is going to meaningfully address crucial issues that threaten regional security, economic stability and diplomatic relations, then ASEAN must shape itself accordingly.

With ASEAN front and center, despite all the diplomatic shuttling and rhetoric, the international community has failed to make any progress on the crisis; if anything, it’s made matters worse. The split within ASEAN, over the fundamental point of whether or not it was a matter of concern for the bloc, was evident within days of the attempted coup.

Cambodia and Thailand’s political leadership described it as an internal matter, while Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia expressed concern, calling for restraint and a peaceful resolution. The Philippines, the oldest democracy in the region, seemingly changed its view from one day to the next, eventually stating that it viewed the takeover with “grave” and “deep” concern. Vietnam, Brunei and Laos took their time before eventually issuing formal statements on the matter.

Over the past year, the inability of the ASEAN member states to jointly recognize the importance of the Myanmar crisis and agree on collective action has enabled the generals to unleash a devastating firestorm of violence and suffering on the people, one that has potentially cost upward of 10,000 lives.

ASEAN’s inaction has directly contributed to the region now hosting its own version of Syria’s protracted conflict. Other international actors are not blameless either, and the inability of the world to effectively respond has worsened an already appalling human rights and humanitarian tragedy.

Since Cambodia became the ASEAN chair in December, the split within the bloc has widened, notably when Prime Minister Hun Sen unilaterally broke the consensus on a five-point action plan to deal with the crisis, warmly shaking hands with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing on a visit to the Myanmar capital and issuing a joint statement with him.

The pair’s friendliness is perhaps “a natural fellowship of dictators”, as Thai academic Thitinan Pongsudirak put it in a recent discussion hosted by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. Within hours of Hun Sen leaving Myanmar, having announced a new joint plan apparently aimed at supplanting ASEAN consensus, the military reneged even on this agreement, reportedly launching air strikes in civilian areas.

The Myanmar people were outraged by the trip, a sentiment summarized by activist Khin Ohmar, who told Hun Sen bluntly, “you are not welcome”, saying that his trip risked lending legitimacy to the junta, making him “complicit in their crimes against humanity and war crimes against our people”.

The pushback against Hun Sen’s trip from the leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines signaled their awareness that Cambodia was attempting to hijack the ASEAN agenda. A planned retreat of ASEAN’s foreign ministers hosted by Cambodia was called off in an implicit rebuke of Hun Sen’s rogue diplomacy.

It’s now time the other eight ASEAN leaders were explicit. If they allow Cambodia to continue toying with the ASEAN agenda, they will be colluding with Hun Sen, furthering the destruction of the bloc’s unity, integrity and credibility. It is clear that ASEAN’s response to this crisis is about more than Myanmar.

As Prof. Thitinan pointed out, the damage being done to ASEAN by Hun Sen’s approach “might be irreparable”. “It might be finished – ASEAN as we know it,” he said.

For now, Hun Sen appears to have taken stock of the pushback. After initially suggesting the junta be included in ASEAN meetings, he has apparently reverted to the bloc’s agreed position of only allowing military representatives to attend if progress is made on the Five-Point Consensus. We will soon find out what that really means at the rescheduled ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat in Siem Reap on Feb. 17.

The responsibility now rests with the prime ministers of Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, the presidents of the Philippines and Indonesia, the sultan of Brunei and the leaders of Vietnam and Laos. They must now unite to send a clear message to Hun Sen to adhere to the collective ASEAN framework and hold Min Aung Hlaing accountable to the consensus that he himself agreed to.

ASEAN’s focus must now shift to doing whatever it takes to alleviate the suffering of Myanmar’s people, who have clearly chosen the future they want: without military involvement in politics. Now, the choice for the rest of the world is whether to support or abandon them.

For Southeast Asia, the implications are profound and ASEAN leaders must ask themselves if they are willing to take the necessary actions to be a region where a people’s longing for peace, justice and freedom can be fulfilled.

As Myanmar’s Spring Revolution enters its second year, ASEAN’s failure to effectively respond risks eroding the very glue that holds the organization together. ASEAN’s future is at stake, and it’s time for tough words from Myanmar’s neighbors.

Another anniversary was marked this past week: It’s been 49 years since the United States and Vietnam signed the peace treaty to end a war that cast a huge shadow on the region and further afield, and contributed to the formation of ASEAN itself.

“One generation’s experience of brutal war is the next generation’s history,” as Jonathan Cohen, executive director of Conciliation Resources, put it.

This is the task before us all today: To ensure that, for future generations in Myanmar, this conflict is a distant memory that marks a decisive moment on the path towards justice, peace and democracy.

This article first appeared in the Jakarta Post

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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was founded in June 2013 with the objective of promoting democracy and human rights across Southeast Asia. Our founding members include many of the region's most progressive Members of Parliament (MPs), with a proven track record of human rights advocacy work.

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