Myanmar Crisis and the Fate of ASEAN

Myanmar has seen the worst humanitarian crisis following the power grab by the country’s Junta in 2021. The  international community must not turn a blind eye towards the suffering populace of this conflict-ridden East Asian state. ASEAN ostensibly is not in the driving seat to make good on the pushback; the failure in finding a lasting solution to the Myanmar conflict — raises a big question mark over the association’s effectiveness.

There are  many moral and practical reasons for the international community to do stocktaking and take a more pragmatic approach to the Myanmar crisis. One key reason is to pull ASEAN out from the line of fire. The association’s credibility and impact have received a sound beating for its inability to find a solution to the  conflict in Myanmar.

A weakened ASEAN bloc is never going to work favourably for the West, China, Japan or South Korea; the heated argument over how to respond to the Myanmar crisis is bearing no fruit for the bloc. Southeast Asia is inhabited by about 9 percent of the world’s population and is known for a marginal portion of the global trade. True, the region attracts massive geopolitical interest. The South China Sea disputes over the maritime areas form a geopolitical hotspot in the region.

Interestingly, ASEAN has  taken a moral stand – not to interfere in the behavior of the neighboring states and it firmly stands against imposing sanctions; half of its member states do not believe in a democratic setup. Take the case of Thailand. The people who came to power in the country in its own military coup are ruling it. Likewise, the regimes of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam rose to  power through the power of gun. Singapore shares ASEAN’s principle – non-intervention in other states’ affairs. Vietnam  and Malaysia look demotivated. Indonesia is in pursuit of a new bold policy but the formation and execution of such a policy could sow the seeds of more division and deepen psychological distances among the other members.

Notably, the junta’s inability or unwillingness to abide by ASEAN’s Five-Point formula is a blow to the bloc’s prestige. On the other hand, ASEAN has failed to denounce it, an indication that the association does not have an arrangement to hold the junta accountable for the latter’s actions. Consequently, the lasting impression that emerges is that ASEAN is devoid of the required will and means to provide even a glimmer of hope for a positive change in Myanmar.

Optimistically, the world was looking forward to Myanmar’s closest neighbors in Southeast Asia to put pressure on the junta and foster a positive change in its conduct. However, the persistent defiance and the high-handedness on its own people is frustrating. Last year, Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni stated in the backdrop of ASEAN’s appearnt failure, “it can undermine the very foundations of our ASEAN Community, which we all have worked so hard to build.”

Needless to point out that ASEAN proves very efficient in forming trade agreements and pacts, enabling the relatively powerless  Southeast Asian states to play a big role on the world stage — the role which they would be unable to play on their own. In addition, the bloc provides a meaningful platform to the important foreign dignitaries to participate in its summits and dialogues. No wonder, the leaders of major powers attach huge importance to ASEAN.

In light of the centrality of ASEAN, what is imperative is to save its reputation and image but in the process, the bloc should not take a backseat in relation to the Myanmar crisis. From this follows that a more proactive stand is required from the Western democracies as well as from Japan and China. Many experts hold that the U.S. and other Western democracies need to increase their funding to the anti-junta resistance movement.

A more proactive ASEAN is likely to engage  other powers to discuss the delicate and dangerous issue of Myanmar. And as it did with the South China Sea disputes, the bloc needs to stay out to let individual Southeast Asian states choose their own way on the Myanmar conflict.

If the international community wants a confident ASEAN, then it is prerequisite for it to help build trust among its members and encourage them to work hand in hand in dealing with its regional issues. Myanmar issue need not prove a deal breaker for the ASEAN countries.

[Thuận Tiện Nguyễn, via Pixabay]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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