Myanmar’s Human Rights Violations and ASEAN’s Response

The recent measures may be less significant than they seem.

Myanmar’s Human Rights Violations and ASEAN’s Response
Credit: Muchlis Jr / Associated Press

On April 24, ASEAN member states held an extraordinary Leaders’ Meeting to discuss the situation in Myanmar at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. The meeting had been proposed in March by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Afterwards, a Chairman’s Statement was issued by Brunei, this year’s chair. The statement incorporated the following “Five-Point Consensus”:“1) there shall be immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties shall exercise utmost restraint, 2) constructive dialogue among all parties concerned shall commence to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people, 3) a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair shall facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, with the assistance of the Secretary General of ASEAN, 4) ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance through the AHA Centre and 5) the special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.”

The fact that ASEAN held an extraordinary meeting to discuss the Myanmar issue and issued a statement are significant in that they mean ASEAN has taken at least some kind of action with regard to the prolonged violence in Myanmar. This violence, which followed a coup d’état by the nation’s military on February 1 and which has taken the form of a harsh crackdown on citizens protesting the coup, has resulted in numerous deaths. The fact that ASEAN leaders met face-to-face during the pandemic was also something of a demonstration of effective leadership by Indonesia, which originally proposed the meeting.

Unfortunately, though, when it comes to actually improving a situation that has involved the rolling back of democracy and increasingly severe human rights violations, there are two reasons to question whether the meeting and the decisions it took will prove effective.

The first concern is the lack of agreement among member states over to what extent ASEAN should intervene. While all member states expressed support for the meeting when it was proposed, ultimately Thailand and the Philippines did not attend, citing COVID-19 concerns, and Laos was also a no-show. Of course, if the leaders of these countries had truly been interested, the meeting could have been held in a hybrid online/in-person format.

The second concern is that this meeting may ultimately end up endorsing the legitimacy of military rule by the coup plotters. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of Myanmar’s military and the leading instigator of the coup, was at the meeting as Myanmar’s representative. For the general, the visit to Jakarta was his first “overseas trip” since taking power. What’s more, the Five-Point Consensus contained in the Chairman’s Statement made no calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other pro-democracy figures being held prisoner by the Myanmar military. Sending a special envoy from ASEAN to Myanmar while this situation persists may actual signaling tacit approval for the Tatmadaw’s power grab.

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Behind all this are the true intentions of ASEAN member states, including those that took part in the meeting. Addressing the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs advocated in the ASEAN Charter, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin noted that “that does not mean that we should ignore a serious situation that jeopardizes the peace, security and stability of ASEAN,” as defended the prospect of ASEAN stepping in to the Myanmar situation. But an important point here is the wording of “the peace, security and stability of ASEAN,” as it appears not to directly include achieving democracy or the protection of human rights. In other words, to the majority of ASEAN countries the most important thing might be “peace” in the sense of maintaining order in Southeast Asia; advancing people’s participation in politics and improving or redressing situations in which nations violate the human rights of their citizens might be not part of that.

This reveals the true intentions behind ASEAN’s response, namely, that while people using illegal means to seize power and employing coercive methods to forcefully maintain the stability of domestic order are problematic, it is better than a situation where there are ongoing demonstrations by those who oppose an authoritarian regime, leading to a minority-led domestic separatist movement and civil war with the central government that could even spill over into neighboring countries. These “true intentions” may of course work to the benefit of the regime that seized control of the country.

The Eminent Persons Group, established in the process of drafting the ASEAN Charter, recommended in 2006 that the “rejection of unconstitutional and undemocratic changes in government” should be incorporated as one of the principles of ASEAN, and that there should be provisions to temporarily suspend the privileges of member states that commit serious violations of the principles or objectives of ASEAN, including this principle. This suggests that at that time, at least, ASEAN member nations were more serious about dealing with issues such as democracy and human rights.

Unfortunately, the recommendation was not accepted. If had been, one wonders if any ASEAN member nations today would have taken action through that mechanism to address the oppression of citizens being carried out by the Myanmar military?