Non-binding United Nations General Assembly resolutions are rarely an item of significant interest. Yet a recent one has brought to light the real divisions between the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The resolution of June 18, which condemned the February coup that overthrew the elected government of State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, split the 10 member states of ASEAN in half. Five of the bloc’s members – Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – supported the resolution condemning the junta and calling for an arms embargo. Four other members – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and the current ASEAN chair Brunei – abstained. Ironically, Myanmar was recorded as supporting the resolution, since its U.N. ambassador defected to the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) shortly after the coup.
ASEAN’s division over the crisis in Myanmar is a result of the diverging national interests of its member states, which have led to the formation of two opposing blocs on the issue. While the more democratic maritime states, led by Indonesia, are concerned with the return of democracy, the more authoritarian mainland states, led by Thailand, have prioritized regional stability, especially since the crisis has sent waves of refugees across Myanmar’s borders. This has left the organization uncoordinated in its response to the crisis, as seen at the United Nations.
Yet this reveals only a deeper issue at the heart of the organization. Formed in 1967, ASEAN was designed to insulate the smaller states of Southeast Asia from the ravages of the Cold War. Seeking to escape the instability of the 1960s, its five founding members – Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines – agreed to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 1976, which first articulated the principles of the so-called “ASEAN Way” of diplomacy. Those principles are chiefly the use of low-key diplomacy, the equality of member states, mutual non-interference in domestic affairs, and the consensus of all members. Those principles have served the organization well as a means of resolving political disputes while protecting regional unity, so that the member states can focus on their own domestic economic development.
The problem facing ASEAN today is that Myanmar, as a fellow member state, is accorded the right of non-interference in its domestic affairs. Thus, the current crisis is as much a division over philosophy as it is over policy. It is about whether the moral imperative to defend human rights and democracy outweighs the principle of non-interference in the affairs of member states – a principle that is critical in maintaining peaceful cooperation among the nations of Southeast Asia.
As such, the current ASEAN chair Brunei has maintained a careful diplomatic approach to the crisis in Myanmar since its inception. The Sultanate has been charged with the unenviable task of resolving the crisis while maintaining the unity of the organization. This is particularly important for Brunei. As the organization’s least-populous member state, it requires a stable regional political architecture to neutralize the inherent threats posed by its larger neighbors.
Brunei has followed a diplomatic course most consistent with the principles of the “ASEAN Way” of diplomacy. An initial statement calling for return to normalcy in Myanmar was followed by a flurry of consultations with Brunei’s fellow ASEAN members and even representatives of the junta. These discussions culminated in an April 24 emergency leader’s summit called by Indonesia President Joko Widodo and chaired by Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who is also the nation’s foreign minister, at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta.
The unprecedented emergency meeting saw some success. The member states agreed to a Five-Point Consensus calling for an end to the violence, the disbursement of humanitarian aid, and the appointment of a special envoy to mediate among the parties and find a peaceful resolution to the crisis in the country. But the summit succeeded precisely because Brunei engaged with the junta and invited the architect of the coup, Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing himself, in his capacity as chief of the Tatmadaw, as a de facto representative of the junta. Even Myanmar as a member state agreed to the Five-Point Consensus as a pathway towards ending the conflict.
This is a key point that is often overlooked by those critical of Brunei’s leadership, who say the Sultanate has been too friendly with the coup plotters. As chair, Brunei has maintained communications with the junta because Myanmar is a fellow ASEAN member. It is for this reason that Brunei has after more than two months not yet appointed a special envoy and why its representatives met with Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw on June 4. The appointment of any individual as special envoy requires a consensus of all the ASEAN members, including Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar itself. Until a consensus is reached, that process will continue to drag out.
Brunei’s pragmatic engagement with Myanmar also explains why the Sultanate did not commit a “diplomatic gaffe” when it recognized General Min Aung Hlaing as the country’s de facto ruler in a statement released and later retracted under pressure only a few days later. The reality is that Brunei had already recognized Min Aung Hlaing’s authority when it invited him to attend the ASEAN summit in April. Rather than a mistake, the retracted statement was likely a conscious acknowledgement that the junta is the only real authority in the country. With Aung San Suu Kyi again under house arrest and the NUG without an independent military force of its own, the opposition has little capacity to replace the junta. As long as Russia and China continue to support the military, it will remain the de facto ruler of Myanmar and must be dealt with accordingly.
Moreover, there is no precedent for ASEAN to interfere in even a contested political process within a fellow member state. For example, what did ASEAN do after the 2014 coup in Thailand? It recognized the new military administration, whose leading general Prayut Chan-o-cha remains in power as prime minister today. Those who return to history and cite ASEAN’s support for the united Cambodian opposition against Vietnam’s occupation of the country during the 1980s forget that Cambodia was not yet an ASEAN member state. As a result, the same principle of non-interference did not apply. Then, ASEAN supported the Cambodians as a status quo alternative to Hanoi’s revisionist expansion. Today, the same support for the NUG would be tantamount to intervening in Myanmar’s domestic affairs and thus a violation of the principle of non-interference that underpins the regional status quo. Taking such a step is a dangerous precedent for an organization dedicated to preserving the status quo regional political order in Southeast Asia.
This is the fundamental difference between Brunei’s “bureaucratic” approach toward diplomacy and the more activist approach as proposed by Indonesia. In what would effectively be a policy of coercion, prominent analysts and journalists have called upon ASEAN’s largest member state to take charge of the organization and pressure Myanmar in lieu of Brunei’s quiet engagement with the junta. This is precisely the wrong approach. If the organization descends into a struggle of the strong against the weak and the large against the small, it will cease to function as a vehicle for strengthening regional unity through consensus diplomacy. Without a unified organization, it will become a mere shell of an institution unable to restrain regional powers from pursuing their narrow national interests. ASEAN would become no better than the League of Nations on the eve of World War II – a truly impotent institution pulled apart by great power competition.
The ASEAN member states cannot let its institutions succumb to such a fate. The organization’s greatest strength is its unity as a collection of smaller states able to mediate among competing regional and great powers in the international system. ASEAN can only continue to do that as a united entity if it adheres to the principles that have brought the organization so far over the past 54 years. That includes non-interference in the affairs of its members, however noxious their leaders may be. That higher principle of maintaining a stable regional order, so as to prevent the mayhem of regional competition and conflict, rightly drives Brunei’s diplomacy as ASEAN chair.