Myanmar question is forcing ASEAN to remake itself
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Myanmar question is forcing ASEAN to remake itself

Many fear that overt displays of disharmony will do long-term damage. Originally published in Nikkei Asia.

From the European Union to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, there is a conundrum at the heart of every regional organization: they exist to project unity but also to manage internal conflicts.

The more that member-states focus on conflict resolution in the short term, the more they draw attention to their disunity, which is why these organizations often prefer to kick intractable problems into the long grass. But, in the long term, regional organizations can only find lasting unity and a sense of purpose by confronting and conquering their differences and disputes.

One year since the military took power, the escalating crisis in Myanmar has brought this conundrum to the fore for ASEAN. The organization is facing the toughest test of its unity in a decade as the nine other member-states clash over how to handle relations with the Myanmar military regime.

ASEAN diplomats usually prefer to bypass disagreements and seek consensus on lowest common denominator issues. But the divisions over how to manage Myanmar have spilled out into rare open sniping between leaders and ministers.

Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, which are all led by authoritarian governments, were already uneasy about ASEAN's unprecedented decision in October to block Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who leads Myanmar's military regime, from attending its key annual summits.

Private discomfort has turned into public discord since Hun Sen, Cambodia's long-ruling prime minister, took over the rotating annual chairmanship of ASEAN this year.

Malaysia criticized Hun Sen for traveling to Myanmar last month without consulting other member-states, lending the military regime much-needed legitimacy in the first post-takeover visit by any foreign leader.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Singapore and Indonesia felt compelled to urge the maverick Hun Sen to maintain the existing line by not inviting Min Aung Hlaing to ASEAN summits. The pressure on Hun Sen has worked for now, with ASEAN refusing to let the military regime participate in a high-profile foreign ministers' meeting last week.

This public scrapping between member-states would be considered standard practice for many other regional organizations. When was the last time that the EU was not embroiled in an existential crisis, be it over Greece, Brexit, Poland or Russia?

But many Southeast Asian officials fear that this overt disharmony will undermine ASEAN at a time when the organization is already being pulled in different directions because of the intensifying rivalry between China and the West.

Regional diplomats are right to worry about the organization's future. "Only the paranoid survive," as the former chief executive of Intel, Andy Grove, famously put it. But feigning unity, ASEAN's normal modus operandi, is a much greater risk than tackling the disagreements over Myanmar head-on.

The split over Myanmar is forcing regional governments and citizens to ask tough questions about what the organization is really for and how it should work. By blocking top military regime officials from its summits, member-states have challenged two fundamental ASEAN principles: consensus-based decision-making and noninterference in member-states' internal affairs.

But they have not wholly dispensed with these doctrines. Myanmar has not been formally suspended from ASEAN, despite calls to do so from human rights activists. And other senior officials from Myanmar's military regime are participating in the near-daily lineup of ASEAN ministerial meetings.

When Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore pushed for ASEAN to respond to the military takeover last year, they were driven by the magnitude of events on the ground and a desire to make the organization seem responsive in global eyes.

They were not seeking to force a reckoning on deeper existential questions about ASEAN. But snap decisions can have great consequences. And, ultimately, strong regional organizations can only be forged through a crisis.

The last time that ASEAN's solidarity was so tested came during Hun Sen's previous chairmanship of the organization in 2012. Cambodia, which has deep and growing ties with China, upset other member-states by refusing to sign on to tougher language about Beijing's behavior in the South China Sea. As a result, ASEAN failed to issue a post-summit communique for the first time in its history.

A decade later, there is much more at stake than diplomatic statements. The Myanmar military has killed at least 1,500 people in its abortive efforts to eradicate the democratic opposition, and thousands more have been arrested or jailed.

The economy has collapsed with nearly half of Myanmar's 55 million people struggling to make ends meet and more than 14 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

Whatever its next steps, ASEAN cannot resolve this crisis alone. Myanmar's future will largely be determined by protracted and bitter clashes between the military regime and a people who overwhelmingly reject its authority. But ASEAN can help to tackle the humanitarian crisis that is spilling over into neighboring countries and it can withhold its stamp of legitimacy to keep pressure on the military regime.

With other key players such as China, Japan and the U.S. saying they will defer to ASEAN on Myanmar, partly for their own cynical reasons, Southeast Asian leaders will remain under scrutiny.

So long as the intransigent military regime refuses to make any concessions, the Myanmar question will continue to loom large over ASEAN. How its member-states respond will shape the organization's future, for worse or for better.

Areas of expertise: Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy; South China Sea; regional economic trends; China-ASEAN relations; Indonesia; Malaysia; Vietnam; Hong Kong