The massive humanitarian crisis engendered by the Feb 1 coup in Myanmar has rattled the 10-member ASEAN. Over the past few weeks, ASEAN has tried hard to find a way out of the crisis. To deliberate upon the issue, a special summit of ASEAN is scheduled to be held on April 24 in Jakarta.
It has also been confirmed that the Myanmar Junta chief General Min Aung Hlaing will attend the ASEAN summit, while Thailand's Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-O-Cha has excused himself from the meeting. Prayuth's absence is indicative of his own fragile record on the democracy front. It also showcases that Prayuth does not want to come in the way of strong Thai-Myanmar ties at the military leaders' level.
The idea of calling a special summit was first proposed on March 19 by the Indonesian President Joko Widodo. With combined diplomatic footwork of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, the effort to call a special summit has succeeded. This is indeed a diplomatic success for the Malaysia-Indonesia-Singapore trio which have worked tirelessly with Brunei to convene a meeting.
However, it is not the first time that ASEAN has taken a diplomatic step to deal with the ongoing crisis. In March this year, ASEAN convened an informal ministerial meeting. The region also witnessed a flurry of visits by the Indonesian (Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Malaysian (Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin), and Singaporean (Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan) leaders to capitals across the region so as to create a collective ASEAN response. With the objective to bring the Myanmar Generals to the discussion table, a series of carefully drafted but cautious messages have also been issued by leading Southeast Asian powers.
So far, ASEAN efforts have relied on mutual consultations based on the 'ASEAN way' and its components such as 'non-interference' in internal matters of member states and ensuring consensus in dealing with a trans-national regional crisis. One may argue that notwithstanding their centrality in ASEAN politics, these principles have inadvertently contributed in delaying the ASEAN response.
ASEAN is likely to propose a humanitarian aid mission to Myanmar and call for end to ongoing state hostilities and violence. The chances of Myanmar Junta accepting ASEAN proposal are bleak. Truth be told, even the chances of special summit making a headway in resolving the Myanmar crisis are slim.
The political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar has reached an alarming stage. More than a thousand people have lost their lives in civil disobedience movement (CDM) and other publically-held peaceful street protests. Internet services and power supply has been disrupted in several provinces of the Myanmar. Armed conflicts between the Tatmadaw and armed rebel groups-particularly the Kachin and Karen, have also intensified.
It is beyond doubt that ASEAN is more informed about the ground situation in Myanmar than the rest of the world but it is also mindful of its own limitations, which is apparent from slow and calculative response to the Myanmar coup. Rather than exhausting its diplomatic resources in criticizing the military Junta and chasing the mirage of immediately restoring democracy (and the Suu Kyi government), ASEAN is seemingly working to find a middle ground and achieve an amicable solution to the crisis.
ASEAN's support for the restoration of democracy should not be mistaken as its support to Suu Kyi either, which is evident from the fact that not only General Hlaing is invited to the ASEAN meeting with calls to release Suu Kyi barely echoed in the region. Also, several ASEAN members do believe that the Myanmar Junta might transfer power in two years' time. Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi seemed keen to work on that idea but backtracked later in view of a stern NLD opposition.
Arguably, ASEAN's summit diplomacy is driven by its deep sense of self-awareness- a realistic understanding of what ASEAN can or cannot do. For ASEAN, the current political crisis is not new.
It has been at the receiving end of the international community even during the Suu Kyi government when millions of Rohingya people had to flee Myanmar to save their lives. However, what makes ASEAN nervous this time around is Junta's use of excessive force in dealing with armed rebel groups and unabated violence to suppress the democratic and peaceful protests.
This is particularly the case with Malaysia and Indonesia, which were critical of Suu Kyi government's tacit support to the Tatmadaw-led Rohingya genocide in the past. Seemingly, the Junta sensed the angst of Indonesia and Malaysia on the Rohingya issue and offered to take back more than a thousand Rohingya refugees from Malaysia as a bargain chip. The move failed to take off due to stiff civil society opposition though.
So far as ASEAN's dialogue partners are concerned, the house seems divided with the US, Australia, and New Zealand having already imposed sanctions of various kinds; Japan, India, and South Korea carefully treading a middle path; and, China and (especially) Russia believed to be working in tandem with Myanmar Generals offerings them sweet deals as part of a bigger military-strategic and trade deals.
The normative conundrum about Myanmar's political crisis has had a numbing effect on Myanmar's neighbours which still seem jittery about the looming humanitarian crisis that has already begun to knock their doors. With the Tatmadaw launching airstrikes against Kachin and Karen rebel groups, the non-combatant civilians are left with no option but to flee their country thereby exacerbating a transnational humanitarian crisis.
Internationally, even though the United Nations is gearing up to find a solution to the crisis, despite UK steering the Arria-formula meeting on Myanmar, it is beyond the UN's great power politics-ridden mechanism to extract any positive outcome.
With Chinese and Russian vetoes even that seems a difficult possibility. In any case, beyond sanctions and embargoes, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), enshrined in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the World Summit Outcome Document, would not be much effective as there is no credible and universally acceptable R2P enforcement mechanism.
This article was first published in New Straits Times on 22 April 2021. Rahul Mishra is Senior Lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, and Associate at the Centre for ASEAN Regionalism (CARUM), Universiti Malaya. He tweets @rahulmishr_.
Last Update: 11/11/2021