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There is No ASEAN Consensus on Myanmar

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There is No ASEAN Consensus on Myanmar

Two months on from ASEAN’s high-profile summit, the organization appears more divided than ever.

There is No ASEAN Consensus on Myanmar

Southeast Asian leaders take part in the ASEAN Leaders Meeting on the Myanmar crisis in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 24, 2021.

Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Kusuma Pandu Wijaya

On June 18, the United Nations General Assembly issued a stinging rebuke to the military junta attempting to consolidate control in Myanmar when it voted 119 to 1 in favor of a resolution that called for a return to democracy and urged all states to “prevent the flow of arms” into the country. The resolution also praised the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for what it described as its “important role” in supporting Myanmar’s democratization and called for the swift implementation of the five-point “consensus” drafted by ASEAN at a special summit in April.

But despite this endorsement – and the lopsided vote overall – ASEAN member states were divided in their response. Six voted in favor of the resolution: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam, as well as Myanmar itself, represented by an ambassador who has courageously rejected February’s military coup. Meanwhile, ASEAN Chair Brunei, along with Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, abstained. It’s a stark contrast to the image of consensus that ASEAN consistently tries to promote, and it underscores the organization’s challenges in responding to the crisis, despite immense international investment in ASEAN’s leadership on this issue.

The original five-point consensus endorsed the immediate cessation of violence and the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to help facilitate “constructive dialogue among all parties.” But two months on from the summit, these points appear no closer to implementation. A special envoy has yet to be appointed, and the bloodshed has not ceased. For its part, the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, has made it clear that it views the points merely as “constructive suggestions” and will consider their implementation only once “stability” has been achieved.

In the face of such intransigence, ASEAN has vacillated wildly in its approach. Even as the bloc called for an end to violence, ASEAN member states were lobbying behind the scenes to water down the U.N. resolution and remove more explicit language calling for a global arms embargo. A visit to Myanmar by ASEAN representatives from Brunei at the beginning of June culminated in a diplomatic snafu: a statement that appeared to bestow legitimacy on the junta, which was then hastily taken down from ASEAN’s website without explanation.

The contradictory moves and overall indecision reflect an organization at odds with itself. ASEAN members share a common goal of promoting stability in Myanmar and avoiding potentially disastrous regional spillover effects. But member states diverge in terms of their theories for how best to achieve that objective.

Some believe that ASEAN must engage firmly and proactively in order to facilitate a negotiated resolution to the crisis and assert clear regional leadership. Indonesia, in particular, has led the push for ASEAN to take on a more active role, expending significant political capital to convene April’s summit and encouraging the rapid appointment of a special envoy with a strong mandate. Along with Malaysia and Singapore, it also unsuccessfully pushed for a call for the release of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners to be included in the consensus document.

For others, however, the preferred pathway to stability apparently involves appeasing the Tatmadaw and hoping that the junta can get a handle on the situation as quickly as possible. The Thai government, which maintains close ties with Myanmar’s top generals, falls into this camp, along with a handful of other autocracies keen – for their own self-interested reasons – to see the bloc give repression a pass. From this standpoint, an arms embargo would be a net negative, depriving the Tatmadaw of the tools it needs to suppress dissent and pave the way for a return to normalcy. This would help explain ASEAN’s behind-the-scenes U.N. lobbying, as well as its muted response to the Tatmadaw’s swift dismissal of its five-point consensus. While some have claimed that ASEAN got duped by the Tatmadaw at April’s summit, in many ways, these governments got exactly what they wanted: to buy the generals more time to consolidate control.

This worldview is deeply flawed. Not only does it promote continued suffering, but the Tatmadaw has proven manifestly incapable of ensuring stability. A return to pre-coup normalcy is not in the cards. The magnitude of the opposition within Myanmar society is overwhelming, and even as major street protests have subsided in the face of intense repression, the uprising sparked by the coup continues. Meanwhile, escalating violence in border regions and a freefalling economy have heightened the the risk of regional spillover.

Thai officials have attempted to justify their position, arguing that they are interested in creating a “safe space” for dialogue. But their apparent unwillingness to engage with Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel body which includes duly elected representatives, undermines this claim. Furthermore, while some have suggested that more proactive engagement would violate ASEAN’s commitment to non-interference in its members’ internal affairs, given the NUG’s strong claim to legitimacy, deference to the Tatmadaw itself also constitutes clear meddling by picking sides in an internal power struggle.

Nevertheless, given ASEAN’s structure and significant status quo bias, this latter approach is currently winning out. ASEAN as an organization has little independent agency. It relies on unanimity among its members in order to move forward, and when they cannot agree, the result is paralysis. It’s therefore much easier to engage in delay tactics than to compel the organization to take robust measures. But as the crisis deepens, ASEAN’s inaction is increasingly being thrust into the spotlight.

That’s bad news for those concerned about maintaining ASEAN’s image as an important regional player: a priority for member states like Singapore. For them, Myanmar is an embarrassment and failing to deal with the crisis undermines ASEAN’s credibility. But in the two months since the high-profile April summit, attempts to paper over divisions within ASEAN and present a unified front have proven futile. Instead of demonstrating leadership, the bloc looks impotent. Meanwhile, public distrust is mounting within Myanmar and across the region as people grow impatient being told that important work is being conducted behind closed doors, despite nothing to show for it.

In spite of all this, many in the international community remain committed to having ASEAN take the lead. The United States, European Union, China, and others have all emphasized ASEAN’s five-point consensus as the linchpin of any solution to the crisis. The new U.N. resolution falls into the same pattern, reflecting an international community bereft of ideas.

But, given its internal divisions, ASEAN has proven incapable of the kind of leadership that these actors are hoping for. Despite a “consensus” on paper, ASEAN is a house divided. The organization is being pulled in different directions, and the result is a disjointed, failed response to the crisis in Myanmar that is laying bare the emptiness of the bloc’s purported centrality.