On February 1, the Myanmar armed forces, led by Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, seized power in a coup, detaining State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of government, and declaring a state of national emergency for one year. The military’s justification for its actions is that the general elections held in late 2020 — which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide, with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) coming a very distant second — were fraudulent. Myanmar’s election commission, however, has rejected these claims. The military has stated their intention to conduct fresh “free and fair” elections. Amid this political crisis, what role could ASEAN — of which Myanmar has been a member since 1997 — play?
As an international organization, ASEAN has been (in)famous for its strict adherence to the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of member states, to the extent that statements made by political leaders about domestic political crises are frowned upon. There has, however, been a marginal dilution of this principle over the years, most prominently in relation to Myanmar. When Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar in 2008, ASEAN responded to international outrage over the military government’s mishandling of the crisis by directly engaging with the government and serving as a channel for aid from the international community. In 2007, ASEAN leaders agreed to skip Myanmar’s turn to host the ASEAN Summit over concerns about its authoritarian government. Multiple episodes of persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims have raised international alarms and led to strong calls for ASEAN to (re)act. While ASEAN has far from met these demands, it has occasionally expressed some, albeit minimal, concern by way of brief, anodyne references to “displaced persons from Rakhine State” in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting’s (AMM) joint communiques and the ASEAN Summit’s chairman’s statements. How can we expect ASEAN to respond to the recent coup?
In 2008, ASEAN member states adopted the ASEAN Charter. (The organization was formed in 1967 on the basis of a Declaration.) The Charter contains multiple references to democracy, a new addition to ASEAN’s vocabulary. The preamble includes a commitment to “Adhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance.” Article 1 lists “strengthen[ing] democracy, enhanc[ing] good governance and the rule of law” as among ASEAN’s main “purposes.” Article 2 on the organization’s “principles” includes “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.” Acquiring such a formal commitment to democracy by a set of largely autocratic governments was not an easy task. But exactly how this principle would be operationalized by members, and enforced by ASEAN, remained intentionally unclear.
A common mode of non-coercive, low-degree intervention for democracy enforcement by regional organizations that has emerged in the last two decades is election observation. Several organizations spanning different regions, including the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the African Union, have developed election observation architectures. ASEAN has toyed with election observation in the past. In 2011, it organized a forum of ASEAN Electoral Management Bodies. In 2012, ASEAN sent an election observation mission to Myanmar for parliamentary by-elections. In its most constructive step yet, in 2015, the bloc, in a Philippines-led initiative, organized a workshop on election observation and released a report detailing “incremental steps towards the establishment of an ASEAN Election Observation Mechanism.” But efforts towards this end have since faltered and a regional election observation mechanism has not yet taken shape.
Developing election observation capabilities, however, would serve as an able means for ASEAN to potentially prevent political crises in member states. The presence of ASEAN election observers during the 2020 Myanmar general election might have accorded an additional degree of legitimacy to the electoral process, especially as an endorsement by an organization of which Myanmar is a member, as opposed to by other external observers. This, in turn, might have undercut the logic used by the Tatmadaw to justify the coup.
In response to the coup, Brunei, who currently holds ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship, released a statement calling for “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy” in Myanmar, citing the ASEAN Charter’s democracy principles. If “dialogue” implies mediation by ASEAN — a noncoercive form of intervention — in the Myanmar crisis, it would represent new terrain for the organization. This seems unlikely, however, as other members remain split over intervening. It remains to be seen whether and how ASEAN’s official bodies — the AMM or the ASEAN Summit (scheduled for April 2021) — will address the Myanmar coup. A need to go beyond symbolic statements, however, is clear.
Expectations of coercive measures by ASEAN, such as sanctions, are almost nonexistent. Statements of concern regarding Myanmar’s internal affairs, however, have increased in recent years. While these may be largely symbolic, they represent a form of low-degree, noncoercive intervention, a step above doing nothing and keeping mum, as might be expected under ASEAN’s traditional mode of regional cooperation. Election observation, which ASEAN has expressed interest in pursuing, might provide ASEAN with an additional instrument to deal with political crises, while steering clear of coercive instruments. Whatever be ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar coup, the organization stands to learn important lessons from its actions. These lessons will be crucial for developing regional crisis management and prevention mechanisms to fulfill ASEAN’s aspirations of “strengthen[ing] democracy.”
Sahil Mathur is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at American University. His dissertation examines why regional organizations around the world respond differently—some with coercive and others with noncoercive means—to political crises in their member states.