The February 2021 coup in Myanmar, which overthrew an elected government and installed a brutal military dictatorship, has posed an enormous challenge to the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN). The group has split on what — if any — action to take regarding the coup. Meanwhile, the military’s unbridled violence against the country’s citizens failed to suppress an increasingly militarized population and the conflict now affects ASEAN states bordering Myanmar and those beyond. As the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit gets underway this week in Washington, Myanmar will not be present, a symbol that the organization — as a whole— does not accept the coup government’s legitimacy. What’s next remains to be seen.

Medical students, doctors and engineers march in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 26, 2021 to protest against the military coup earlier that month. (The New York Times)
Medical students, doctors and engineers march in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 26, 2021 to protest against the military coup earlier that month. (The New York Times)

USIP’s Jason Tower and Priscilla Clapp discuss ASEAN’s response to the coup, the international power dynamics behind it, and how the putsch fits into a worldwide assault on democracy. 

Why has ASEAN been unable to address the coup in Myanmar and its continuing consequences?

ASEAN faces three key challenges in responding to the regional crisis triggered by the Myanmar army’s coup and the oppression, fear and extreme violence the generals employ to try to enforce their authority. 

First, ASEAN is a consensus-based organization of 10 states that vary widely in socio-economic and political development. Given that diversity, the bloc has developed what it calls the “ASEAN way”— a pledge to avoid interfering in each other’s domestic affairs and to focus largely on broad-based initiatives they all support. With some ASEAN states facing troublesome domestic challenges of their own, the bloc has been highly reluctant to abandon or revise this guiding principle.

Second, in retrospect the steps ASEAN did take to address the coup were problematic. Immediately after the military seized power in February 2021, ASEAN invited Myanmar’s military chief — the architect of the coup — to a summit in Jakarta where the organization’s leaders rolled out their so-called “Five Point Consensus” to help stabilize the country. Unfortunately, no part of the opposition was consulted before or during the meeting, creating the appearance that ASEAN was conferring legitimacy on the junta. Subsequently, neither the coup leadership nor the key components of Myanmar’s popular resistance — the National Unity Government (NUG) and the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) — accepted the terms of the consensus. As opposition to the junta turned violent and grew nationally, the other nine ASEAN states were left with a roadmap that neither side viewed as their vision for the country’s future. Further neutering the five-point plan, Myanmar’s self-appointed ruler proceeded shamelessly to reframe the five points to meet his own objectives.

Third, key regional powers, including China, India and Japan, have long-standing interests in Myanmar that have been only marginally affected by the coup, presenting another challenge to the ASEAN. Over nearly three decades, China has sought to harness Myanmar to its southwestern provinces seeking to gain access to the Indian Ocean, open a strategic energy corridor and boost development of its landlocked interior. As with other countries on its periphery, China considers the China-Myanmar borderlands critical to its national security and remains vigilant against any form of Western encroachment. India and Japan — both of which have deep economic and political interests in Myanmar’s geo-strategic position — have strong national interests in presenting alternatives to China’s growing influence in Myanmar. 

The dynamic of great power competition in Southeast Asia has thus worked to dilute the effectiveness of efforts to isolate Myanmar’s coup leaders, adding to ASEAN’s difficulties in finding a sustainable solution.

Has the failure so far of ASEAN’s roadmap for the conflict harmed its reputation and caused disunity within the bloc?

ASEAN is not the only international actor that has failed to resolve the conflict in Myanmar, so it is not fair that its reputation should be harmed. However, its response to the coup has created division within ASEAN between two sets of states with differing political interests. 

On one side are the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, the Mekong countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. They have little interest in pressuring Myanmar’s military for fear of harming their own economic interests and political ties with the generals. They also hesitate to become involved with issues of human rights and democracy that could set an ASEAN precedent and one day might be turned back on them. On the other side are the maritime countries of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines and Brunei. These countries tend to have more mature political and governance systems; even before the coup they registered concerns about the plight of the Rohingya and other Muslim and religious groups. They have pushed resolutely to isolate the junta, demanding it be held accountable to the Five Point Consensus and barring the junta leader from attending further ASEAN meetings.  

Pressure from the international community has aggravated this division. On one end of the spectrum, China has used its leverage with key ASEAN client states Laos and Cambodia to prevent ASEAN from responding more robustly. It has pressed ASEAN countries generally to follow its initiative to recognize the military’s government, the State Administrative Council, and urged them not to isolate the regime. On the other end, the United States, United Kingdom and European Union have supported efforts by ASEAN countries like Malaysia and Indonesia to engage the opposition, particularly the National Unity Government, and have raised concerns when ASEAN states, especially the current ASEAN chair Cambodia, have moved to legitimize the regime and offer it economic or political support. 

With the U.S.-ASEAN Summit held in Washington this week, can the United States influence ASEAN to adopt a bolder approach to the junta?

First, it is critical that the Myanmar issue does not undermine progress with the already vibrant cooperation between the United States and ASEAN, particularly when it comes to economic and trade initiatives, connectivity, and addressing key global and regional challenges such as climate change. The U.S. side has developed a robust and broad agenda for the summit to address all these issues, as well as to advance understanding among ASEAN leaders of the impact of U.S. domestic politics on the administration’s options for pursing trade agreements and other policies in the region. In fact, the bloc’s principled decision not to invite the military or senior political representatives to occupy the Myanmar seat at ASEAN summits has contributed significantly to setting the stage for a successful exchange at this bilateral summit. 

Secondly, it is important to point out that the United States and many ASEAN states, especially Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, share similar assessments of the situation in Myanmar. They recognize that the military does not and will not constitute a legitimate government and see the importance of engaging with the National Unity Government, the National Unity Consultative Council and other groups that have overwhelmingly rejected the military putsch. They also recognize the importance of compelling the junta immediately to cease all violence, to release all political prisoners, and to restore civilian governance. It is therefore not a matter of the United States exerting pressure on ASEAN, but rather an opportunity for participants in the summit to explore what kind of additional steps might be more effective in resolving the conflict and reigning in further brutality by the military toward its civilian population.

Third, is the opportunity provided by the summit to renew our commitment to the principle of ASEAN centrality, while recognizing that this principle does not rise or fall on the resolution of the Myanmar crisis. The Myanmar army’s assault on its people is part of a worldwide assault on democracy by autocrats that presents a serious global security threat, deeply damaging to the entire world’s economy and stability. Without the tools and leverage to address problems of this magnitude, ASEAN is left in a vulnerable position when other states outsource responsibility to it without mobilizing their own robust responses to the crisis in support of ASEAN’s efforts. 

The United States also has the opportunity in the context of the summit to demonstrate high-level engagement with the NUG and other stakeholders in the resistance. As representatives of the government elected by the people and of many of the key ethnic nationality groups that have been struggling against military rule for decades, these platforms have much more legitimacy in the eyes of the Myanmar population than the military. Any efforts by the international community to address the situation in Myanmar will need to involve close and careful consultation and coordination with these stakeholders who will determine Myanmar’s future. 

Key actors in the international community have deferred to ASEAN to address the crisis in Myanmar. Meanwhile, as the war in Ukraine preoccupies the West, China has signaled even more overt backing for the junta. How can concerned nations best respond? 

This is a problem that must be addressed at the highest level because the dual crises in Europe and Asia are a clear signal to the world’s democracies that we are all at risk. The U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit affords the perfect opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its capacity for responding broadly to this threat in more than one theater. While the assault on Ukraine is unquestionably a bold attack on the entire system underlying peaceful coexistence in post-World War II Europe, the military assault on elected government in Myanmar is an equal challenge to peace and stability if it cannot be effectively addressed by the international community of democracies. It will become the harbinger of yet more such assaults on democracy and international stability in Asia if we fail.

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