Southeast Asian governments have reacted to the coup in Myanmar in diverse ways that reflect divergent interests. Some, such as Singapore, have condemned the generals’ violence against anti-coup protesters. Others, including Vietnam, have strategic concerns behind their limited willingness to speak out. Cambodia may believe it benefits from the takeover as international attention shifts to Myanmar. They can all agree, though, that fallout from the coup is damaging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a time when the broader regional order is in flux.

The scene on a bridge after protesters clash with security forces in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 16, 2021. (The New York Times)
The scene on a bridge after protesters clash with security forces in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 16, 2021. (The New York Times)

The expanding role of the Quad — the United States, Australia, Japan and India — as an alternative platform to address regional security issues already threatened ASEAN’s central role. Now, an ASEAN divided over Myanmar is likely to strengthen China’s bid to enlarge its influence, while its failure to condemn the egregious acts of a pariah state in its midst will strain ties with the West.

From security impacts to commercial interests to the reputational costs to ASEAN, the effects of the Myanmar crisis are rippling across Southeast Asia. While ASEAN countries should want to lead in restoring Myanmar’s governance and stability, perhaps by encouraging the junta to stand down, ASEAN is no stronger than its weakest link. As long as any members remain aloof, or even seek to benefit individually from the chaos in Myanmar, ASEAN as a whole cannot act decisively. This is what has happened over the past three years with the Rohingya crisis. The same dynamic is now driving the democracies of maritime Southeast Asia to push the illiberal states of mainland Southeast Asia to consider new approaches beyond the traditional ASEAN playbook.

ASEAN Views of the Coup

Responses to the coup within ASEAN have run the gamut from attempts to broker an internal deal in Myanmar to near total silence, a reflection of the range of national systems and outlooks in the region.

The democracies in maritime Southeast Asia, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have been most vocal and active. In Indonesia and Malaysia in particular, criticism of the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is called, come on top of widespread disgust over ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya population. The Philippine government’s reaction has been characteristically chaotic, but ultimately supportive of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the elected ruling party overthrown by the military. Meanwhile, Brunei, the current chair of ASEAN, has been quiet as it seeks to convene discussions among ASEAN members.

In many ways, the stakes in the crisis are highest for Thailand, given its shared border with Myanmar and the potential for increased flows of refugees, narcotics and other illicit activities. The Thai government recognizes that the political status quo inside Myanmar is unsustainable, but is hampered, as the product of a military coup itself, by worries that its response could lead to renewed domestic debate over its own legitimacy.

Elsewhere in mainland Southeast Asia, the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have registered muted responses, each having strong reasons not to push too hard to restore Myanmar’s deposed democratic leaders or otherwise wade into other states’ affairs. Vietnam is warily navigating the pressure of assuming its term as president of the U.N. Security Council on April 1. In the case of Cambodia, the government is an ostensible beneficiary of the coup, given that it eases pressure from the diplomatic and business communities, which have grown increasingly concerned about a crackdown on civil society and political opposition. Together with the government of Laos, which has disappeared key activists and closed all space for civil society since 2012, Cambodia is quite happy to see Myanmar re-emerge as the main target of international criticism.

Regional High Stakes

The instability and disruption spawned by the Myanmar junta cannot be overstated.

In terms of security, the Tatmadaw has demolished the rule of law. The security forces, already responsible for more than 700 protester deaths, regularly commit heinous criminal acts, attacking civilians, destroying and stealing property, and leaving communities across Myanmar insecure. Since early March, tens of thousands of people have fled major cities like Yangon and Mandalay for the states and regions. In turn, the Tatmadaw Air Force has bombed ethnic armed groups hosting the internally displaced in Karen and Kachin states. As the military’s reign of terror deepens, tens of thousands of people are seeking shelter in Thailand, India and China.

Meanwhile, an explosion in transnational criminal activity has already hit the region. Thai police report a significant increase in drug-related crimes, and the Chinese authorities have arrested a steady flow of people illegally crossing the Myanmar-China border into criminal hubs in Kokang, Mongla and Wa.

Wages of Crime

These trends pose three key threats to Southeast Asian law enforcement.  

First will be a growing presence of Chinese transnational criminal actors. As USIP has discussed elsewhere, the Chinese triads have already become deeply embedded in Southeast Asia countries, exploiting weakness in governance to operate cross-border illegal gambling operations, cross-border crypto-currency scams or other forms of cross-border fraud.

With conflict exploding in Myanmar, these networks will seek to tap into markets for small arms while expanding their involvement in trafficking drugs and wildlife. Online chat forums established largely for illegal online casinos already indicate this shift toward more nefarious forms of crime, compounded by signs that armed actors inside Myanmar are accelerating their plunder of already scarce forests and wildlife to generate revenue.

A second threat will be to the financial system, as the transnational criminal organizations seek to launder their illicit gains through online transfer applications and underground exchange businesses. Responding to this threat will be particularly tricky, as humanitarian needs will increasingly require informal transfers across borders.

Third, as the region’s illicit economy is dominated by transnational Chinese crime groups, Beijing will likely seek to further extend its security presence in the region as it has along the Mekong since the Mekong River Massacre of 2011, which saw 13 Chinese nationals killed in the Golden Triangle region between Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.  

Stranded Investments

While Chinese and Japanese investments in Myanmar have drawn much attention, the single largest investor in the country is Singapore. The ongoing violence leaves Singaporean companies with billions of dollars in capital investments exposed, although Singapore wields significant leverage as the presumed home to bank accounts of Myanmar’s generals and their crony companies. Thailand, meanwhile, is the third largest investor after Singapore and China, and is heavily dependent on Myanmar for natural gas imports. One of the largest Thai investors in the country — the Amata Group — has already cut its losses, halting plans for the $274 million Amata Smart and Eco City Project.

Lumbering ASEAN Action

While the coup has laid bare existing divisions within ASEAN and its lack of collective will, ASEAN as a collective entity is lumbering toward some sort of action, largely due to the persistence of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and the recognition by member states that inaction is endangering ASEAN.

Events since February 1, however, have called into question foundational elements of ASEAN’s self-identity, including those expressed in the 2008 ASEAN Charter to adhere to “the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The hollowness of ASEAN leaders’ 2015 declaration of an “ASEAN Political-Security Community” has also been exposed.

For its part, ASEAN has announced the intention to convene a summit to address these issues as soon as next week. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have put forth a number of ideas, including the appointment of an ASEAN envoy to provide good offices. Indonesia has also promoted the idea of a track 2 platform that might enable the involvement of the group representing the deposed, elected NLD government. This effort might be aided by high-profile engagement by individual ASEAN states with the NLD parliamentarians, which would boost its international standing to pursue a unity government with Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups.

Internationally, ASEAN’s inability to staunch the violence in Myanmar is likely to cloud its relations with the West. And if ties with the European Union, United Kingdom and United States fray, ASEAN’s capacity to blunt an increasingly aggressive China will also weaken.

For the Biden administration, the difficulty of engaging ASEAN as a bloc while Myanmar’s military government has a seat at the table will hamper rollout of its broader Asia policy. Before February 1, it was expected the administration would prioritize ASEAN in its renewed global engagement with multilateral organizations in light of ASEAN’s central place in the Indo-Pacific regional architecture. Now the administration finds itself in a quandary: How to avoid letting Myanmar drag down multilateral engagement with the region while also pursuing cooperation with Southeast Asian countries on myriad issues unrelated to the crisis in Myanmar.

Perhaps one avenue for the United States to explore are deeper synergies between the Quad and ASEAN. Through the Quad, the United States might be able to dramatically enhance strategic support to India to open more space to address the humanitarian crisis, as well as to enhance the status and legitimacy of the NLD parliamentarians group. ASEAN, in turn might play, more of a role in persuading the Tatmadaw to seek a political solution as a last chance to avoid state failure.

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