The noise surrounding Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit last week to Myanmar to meet with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing has been so deafening that any nuance is a whisper. Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, called it “a slap in the face of the eight other ASEAN member states,” an apparent claim that the rest of the bloc was somehow united last year and that they opposed his visit. Perhaps this was the reason why the upcoming ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat, due to take place in Siem Reap next week, was called off on Thursday. Some allege other regional governments refused to travel in protest over Hun Sen’s Naypyidaw sojourn. The first real spike in Omicron infections in Cambodia is an alternative reason.
Another narrative now making the rounds contends that disinviting Hlaing from last October’s ASEAN Summit was an actual policy of courage and sustainability, and, indeed, something that gave ASEAN more leverage over the junta. That’s far from evident. And, as a corollary, this narrative holds that Hun Sen’s visit last week scuppered the bloc’s apparently tough-nosed consensus, whereas it’s probable that most regional states just want the Myanmar crisis off the agenda, regardless of the outcome.
However, the question rarely asked is why Hun Sen had the opportunity to unilaterally decide to make his visit in the first place – to travel to Naypyidaw on behalf of the rest of ASEAN without having properly consulted his partners beforehand, except for a brief chat with Indonesian President Joko Widodo on January 4, which was held weeks after Hun Sen announced and planned his visit. Ahead of its assumption of the post, some pundits predicted a weak Cambodian chairmanship of the bloc. “[E]xpectations for Cambodia’s chairmanship are low… A failed or even stagnant Cambodian chairmanship will… accelerate ASEAN’s decline,” Charles Dunst wrote last November. What should have been of concern, however, was that Cambodia might stretch the power of the Chairmanship, using the post to advance its own interests, as I argued in this column last November.
According to the ASEAN Charter, a document that leaves so much open for interpretation, the annually-rotating chair is merely supposed to play host to what is essentially a gentleman’s club: to organize the two ASEAN summits that take place each year, to represent the bloc on the world stage (such as at G-20 meetings), and to arrange the numerous ministerial meetings between member states. However, Article 32, which describes the role of the chairman, leaves room for more. The chair is supposed to: “ensure an effective and timely response to urgent issues or crisis situations affecting ASEAN, including providing its good offices and such other arrangements to immediately address these concerns.” Even more broadly, Section (e) of this article states that the holder is to: “carry out such other tasks and functions as may be mandated.” In other words, Hun Sen could reasonably argue that his visit to Naypyidaw last week fulfilled this requirement.
Rahul Mishra, a prominent commentator on Southeast Asia, says the ASEAN chair “has turned more authoritative in recent years.” He told me, “Hun Sen’s decision to engage the Myanmar junta without any free and open consultation with fellow ASEAN members is just another symptom of this massive rot in the system.” However, he went on, Hun Sen isn’t the only one who deserves blame. “Other, comparatively more democratic, ASEAN chair countries in the past are also guilty of such a practice,” he noted.
Since ASEAN was founded in 1967, there have been unanswered questions over its leadership. Indonesia was primus inter pares in the early days. After the bloc expanded from six to 10 members in the 1990s, the question grew more urgent – and especially so as ASEAN now finds itself at the heart of the U.S.-China rivalry. (The China question was always going to be the most difficult, since ASEAN’s extension to the Chinese border following the bloc’s expansion in the 1990s.) “Since ASEAN initiatives remain informal and non-binding, leadership was not seen as a necessary option. However, given the current geopolitical circumstances, a need for a formidable level of leadership may be crucial,” Joshua Bernard B. Espeña and Don McLain Gill argued in 2020. Some have argued Indonesia needs to reclaim its mantle as the de jure leader. Others, including myself, have suggested Vietnam could play such a role.
Without an answer, the bloc has fallen back on the notion of consensus and unanimity over decisions. Often, though, this fallback is a contradiction. Because the bloc is supposed to operate in a consensual and harmonious fashion, member states are averse to calling out other members not acting in a consensual and harmonious way. Either the rest of the ASEAN members supported Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar or they didn’t, but none has publicly critiqued his trip. As such, consensus has to be maintained even when an existing policy decided by consensus is torn up.
What’s to blame? First, the problem is structural. “The ASEAN chair using its prerogative on Myanmar tells us about the limited power the ASEAN Secretariat has on transnational matters,” said Mishra. Under Ong Keng Yong, the secretary general between 2003 and 2007, and Surin Pitsuwan (2008-2012), the executive in Jakarta did play a more active role in affairs. But with Lim Jock Hoi, of Brunei, who has held the post since 2018, this is less the case. And an ineffectual secretary general means the annually-rotating chair has greater power. The second problem is the conflict of interests. When Hun Sen visited Naypyidaw it wasn’t clear whether he went as Cambodian prime minister or ASEAN chair – and, more importantly, whether Min Aung Hlaing thought he was meeting with the Cambodian prime minister or the ASEAN chair.
In essence, all that keeps the ASEAN Chairman from acting out of self-interest is good faith. The unwritten rules of ASEAN, which have at times given it flexibility, are at risk if the incumbent simply decides not to follow tradition. And, because of the importance others attach to consensus, the rest of the bloc is reluctant to call out such unilateral behavior. As such, if the bloc does work best through compromise, collegiality, and consensus, this often relies on the ASEAN chair enforcing the consensus, the contradiction at the heart of the question of power in the bloc.
The Chulalongkorn University political scientist and public intellectual Thitinan Pongsudhirak told me that he doesn’t think the ASEAN chair has become more authoritative as such. “What Hun Sen is doing with the ASEAN chairmanship is an outlier,” he said, noting that the preceding chairs (Thailand, Vietnam, and Brunei) were more consultative. “Even Brunei, when it had a chance to ride roughshod over the rest as ASEAN chair and sec-gen last year, was measured and savvy to come up with the Five-Point consensus on Myanmar,” said Thitinan.
But notice the flaw. Brunei last year had the opportunity to ride roughshod over the bloc but didn’t. Why? Not because there were rules or protocols to stop it, but because it took the decision, as chair, to maintain consensus. But Cambodia, with less compunction about consensus, isn’t shackled. There simply aren’t the rules and structures in place to prevent it, nor any desire from other states to critique it.
Under the current model, the holder of the chairmanship essentially has the prerogative to decide whether they’ll lead unilaterally or consensually. Yet, consensus often has to be upheld unilaterally, such as during Brunei’s chairmanship last year, and unilateral decisions aren’t critiqued out of fear of upsetting the consensus, as evidenced right now. That might have been manageable when ASEAN was just about making money, but not today when serious geopolitical issues are at stake.
The best solution, it seems, is to give more power to the ASEAN Secretariat, turning it into something resembling the European Commission, which does act as a proper executive. But this has its own problems. The witting reader might know that because the secretary general post changes hands every five years between members on an alphabetic basis, Cambodia gets to choose the occupant when the incumbent steps down in January 2023. If one is concerned about how Cambodia will run ASEAN as the chairman this year, one ought to also be concerned about what the next Cambodia-appointed Secretary-General might do from 2023 to 2028.
Thitinan, however, recommends shortening the secretary general position, down from its current five-year term, as well as perhaps doing away with the rotation of the position between countries. Instead, it could be elected by a majority vote among member states. This would get ASEAN affairs out of the hands of the governments of member states, as well as making sure consensus isn’t a gift to be granted by the current ASEAN chair. One could go further and say that an ASEAN Parliament is needed if the Secretariat is to be given more power, and Members of the ASEAN Parliament (MAPs, if you will) could elect the Secretariat staff.
“Bold reforms are needed to reboot and relaunch the organization,” said Thitinan. “Otherwise it will become increasingly irrelevant and no longer central and credible in regional affairs, eclipsed by major powers, which will have no choice to impose their separate preferences if ASEAN can no longer act as buffer, broker, and bridge.”