Commentary |
12 March 2021

All risk, few options in Myanmar

The coup in Myanmar will weaken ASEAN just when outsiders want it to look solid in an era of big-power competition. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Ben Bland
Ben Bland

It is rare for the US, Australia and China to agree on anything substantive these days. But all three governments believe that the Association of South-East Asian Nations should play a key role in trying to resolve the deteriorating political crisis in Myanmar.

South-east Asian leaders appreciate this diplomatic nod to their regional organisation. But now this disparate group of authoritarian regimes and flawed democracies must find a way to help stop the violence and promote reconciliation in Myanmar.

Otherwise, they risk Myanmar spiralling into a conflict that will spill over its borders and leave ASEAN weakened and divided at a time of intensifying great-power tensions.

At first glance, it is not obvious why last month’s coup in Myanmar – and the murderous crackdown by the junta – should trouble the rest of south-east Asia. While ASEAN pays lip service to democracy and human rights, authoritarian rule dominates in the region. And the organisation prizes consensus and non-interference in its member-states’ internal affairs over problem-solving.

Only three countries – Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines – have electoral systems that offer the opposition a realistic shot at power, and in all three nations democratic rights are under growing pressure.

Elsewhere, few would expect the absolute monarchy of Brunei, the current ASEAN chair, the Communist leaderships of Laos and Vietnam, Hun Sen’s dictatorial Cambodia or the military-led Thai government to have many qualms about General Min Aung Hlaing’s seizure of power.

ASEAN’s muted statements on the Myanmar crisis reflect these realities, with some governments – including the Myanmar junta, of course – refusing to back calls by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader ousted and detained by the military.

However, it is surprising how far some south-east Asian nations have pushed on the Myanmar problem, given ASEAN’s limitations.

There are real fears about the potential of the Myanmar crisis to destabilise the region.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has tried shuttle diplomacy, meeting the junta’s foreign minister in Bangkok and pushing for an informal ASEAN meeting on Myanmar, with the backing of some “like-minded” neighbours such as Malaysia and Singapore.

Vietnam, currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, signed off on a relatively strongly worded Security Council statement this week that condemned the junta’s violence against peaceful protesters and called for the immediate release of those arbitrarily detained.

ASEAN cynics see these as little more than cosmetic attempts to give the appearance that something is being done. But they reflect real fears about the potential of the Myanmar crisis to destabilise the region.

First, as the UN’s special envoy has warned, there is a risk that the junta’s indiscriminate use of lethal violence could propel Myanmar into open conflict, especially given the existence of numerous ethnic armed organisations and the recent attempts by some to forge links with the pro-democracy movement.

Second, divisions within ASEAN over how to respond to the Myanmar crisis could weaken the organisation at a time when US-China rivalry has already damaged regional unity.

The Myanmar issue is also likely to overshadow ASEAN’s broader agenda, further straining the chairmanship of Brunei, a tiny sultanate that plans to hold only one rather than two leaders’ summits this year because of its limited diplomatic resources.

Lastly, the uncompromising response by the Biden administration, which has imposed sanctions on the junta despite south-east Asian calls against such a move, could undermine hopes for a reset in the region’s relations with the US after the turbulent Trump years.

At the same time, China will try to take advantage of any cracks in relations between the US and south-east Asia, and to profit from efforts to isolate Myanmar again.

While the risks for ASEAN member-states are high, the options for action are few. Myanmar’s future will largely be decided by the interplay between the military and Suu Kyi – and a population that mostly detests the former and loves the latter.

South-east Asian diplomats say privately that the best they can hope for in the short term is to try to use back-room pressure and official channels of communication to limit further intensification of violence by the military. “It could get a lot worse if they feel they are backed into a corner by the world,” says one south-east Asian ambassador.

There is little comfort in that for the students, doctors and civil servants risking their lives on Myanmar’s streets to fight for democracy. They protested against Indonesia’s efforts at mediation, fearing these could legitimise the junta, and want to see much tougher action from the rest of the world.

But with the military so entrenched, any eventual solution to the crisis in Myanmar will likely require a mix of responses, from the bad cops in Washington to the good cops in south-east Asia trying to offer Min Aung Hlaing and the junta a face-saving way to step back from a coup that has backfired badly.

Ben Bland is director of the southeast Asia program at the Lowy Institute and the author of Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia.