The third coup d’etat in Myanmar since the country’s independence in 1948 has installed a leader who is already named for an alleged genocide and a long list of atrocities linked to the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya four years ago.
Sen. Gen. Aung Min Hlaing is the type of leader ASEAN can do without. Hearings into the atrocities at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) are continuing and this is just one factor regional leaders are struggling with since his rise to power through the barrel of gun.
Promises that this junta will be “different” from its predecessors and that multiparty elections will be held in a year just don’t cut it. New Zealand has already suspended high-level contacts and imposed a travel ban on its military leaders.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is demanding the coup be reversed.
Regional dynamics have changed since Myanmar’s generals enacted political reforms in 2011, backed by then U.S. President Barack Obama, and the new junta is now threatening to re-write the region’s diplomatic playbook.
ASEAN’s predominantly Islamic nations – Indonesia, Malaysia, and to lesser extent Brunei – are justifiably incensed by the self-appointment of a general who oversaw the rape, torture, mass murder and forced exodus of fellow Muslims into Bangladesh.
Islamic sympathies help shape politics in Jakarta, the powerhouse of ASEAN, and membership to the 10-nation bloc should not be taken for granted as Cambodia and Laos discovered late last year when it was suggested both should be booted out because of their cozy ties with China.
But such a move would separate Vietnam and its rapidly industrializing economy from the rest of mainland Southeast Asia and is therefore unworkable.
Myanmar has little to offer in that regard and this coup has compromised an intricate network of trade deals and cross border agreements, like the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). And in addition to the ICJ’s case, Aung Min Hlaing must also be a prime target for the Global Magnitsky Act.
The U.S. government is using the Magnitsky Act to pursue human rights violators around the world, and enables U.S. President Joe Biden – keen to redress the shortcomings of the Trump administration on human rights – to freeze the bank accounts and assets of Myanmar’s generals.
Countries like Australia and Britain are examining similar legislation while the European Union has been pro-active in promoting human rights standards through its Everything But Arms (EBA) policy, where least developed countries get favorable access to its markets in return for meeting international standards of democracy.
Attitudes to China have also changed, with relations between Beijing and most countries in the region deteriorating rapidly.
Beijing has already signaled a willingness to work with the junta and traditional sanctions, targeted Magnitsky sanctions, and a withdrawal of trade perks under EBA could drive the junta further into China’s ever-waiting arms.
Close ties with China would, again, annoy Indonesia and its regional partners, Australia and India, who are building what was once considered an unlikely alliance to thwart Chinese encroachment in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
That would make Myanmar a third pressure point for the West – alongside the South China Sea and the Greater Mekong Subregion – in its attempts to limit Chinese influence.
Bigger headaches loom inside Myanmar, where there are no shortages of insurgencies opposed to the military, offering a range of opportunities for Western and regional governments that have decided enough is enough.
The idea that Cambodia and Laos should be tossed out of ASEAN for being too close to China was a step too far. Besides, it’s an issue confronting every country in the bloc.
But the prospect that Myanmar’s days in ASEAN are numbered while its leaders are tried for genocide, albeit in absentia, is not quite as far-fetched.
It’s the General’s call.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt