Managing ASEAN’s Growing Myanmar Challenge

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Managing ASEAN’s Growing Myanmar Challenge

The grouping faces rising pressure to tackle a new phase of an issue that has consumed it for decades.

Managing ASEAN’s Growing Myanmar Challenge

Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn speaks during a Special ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the situation in Myanmar in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 27, 2022.

Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Kusuma Pandu Wijaya

Recent events in Myanmar over the past month, from an attack on an ASEAN convoy to a deadly cyclone, have once again highlighted the Southeast Asian bloc’s growing challenge in grappling with the realities of the post-coup situation, which has already killed thousands, displaced millions, and inflicted untold suffering on the people of the country. More broadly, the developments are also a reminder of how quickly ground realities can outpace ongoing efforts by the regional grouping and other actors, and the urgency with which the situation needs to be managed.

The notion of Myanmar being a challenge for ASEAN is not new. The grouping has long found it difficult to exercise the limited leverage it has it has to calibrate its role in managing the external implications of instability in the country while also recognizing ASEAN’s traditional adherence to not interfering in members’ internal affairs. For instance, in the 1990s, protracted domestic instability in Myanmar, with nationwide demonstrations in 1988 and the military government’s refusal to accept opposition victory in the 1990 elections, complicated discussions among member states about admitting Myanmar into ASEAN, which eventually took place in 1997.

In the 2000s, international criticism of the human rights situation in Myanmar eventually saw the country give up its ASEAN chairmanship planned for 2006. Then, following the suppression of the so-called Saffron Revolution that broke out in 2007, Myanmar continued to dominate the ASEAN agenda and complicated ties with some dialogue partners like the United States. ASEAN was able to make some modest inroads in engagement following Cyclone Nargis in 2008 before Myanmar eventually moved to a phase of opening in the 2010s, but that phase ended with the 2021 coup.

The post-coup situation in Myanmar has proven to be a particularly vexing challenge for ASEAN. When the coup occurred back in February 2021, it was just the latest in a series of challenges affecting it, with the grouping already facing scrutiny amid the pandemic, intensifying U.S.-China competition and perceived loss of centrality with the rise of minilateral institutions like the Quad and conceptions such as the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN did initially adopt the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) in April 2021 and attempt some engagement, but, more than two years later, this has done little to alter the calculations of the ruling State Administration Council (SAC), even as violence has worsened in the country. Indonesia has intensified quiet diplomacy under its chairmanship this year, yet there are already worries from seasoned observers about potential policy drift and divisions within ASEAN. The events of just the past few weeks alone – from the attack on an ASEAN aid convoy to a deadly cyclone ravaging parts of Myanmar and Bangladesh – were a reminder of the sobering ground realities and how they extend beyond Myanmar itself.

The worry for ASEAN is that this could worsen still further over the next few years. The domestic situation in Myanmar shows few signs of ending definitively anytime soon, and could in fact exacerbate as the junta takes more steps to cling on to power, including a potential election that the people of Myanmar are unlikely to view as either free or fair. ASEAN divisions could deepen as the situation drags on despite Indonesia’s best efforts, and this could extend into Laos’ ASEAN chairmanship in 2024, after it last held it in 2016 under the grouping’s annually rotating system (indeed, should this continue, ASEAN may also need to once again adjust for Myanmar’s own coming chairmanship of ASEAN, currently set to take place in 2026).

External powers may also redouble their individual efforts to secure their own interests in the absence of collective action at the regional level. Spillover concerns across a range of areas, including transnational crimes, migration, and resource management, are all likely to heighten, even if Myanmar avoids the worst-case scenario of a failed state.

This is not to say that ASEAN is entirely powerless to manage this growing challenge. The grouping can continue trying to make progress in areas already outlined in the 5PC, such as facilitating dialogue between stakeholders including the SAC and National Unity Government (NUG) or providing humanitarian assistance. Moving forward, it can also help institutionalize some of these measures, which can help “future-proof” its approach beyond Indonesia’s current chairmanship as others have pointed out. And while independent efforts by ASEAN states on Myanmar is expected – along with speculation about rhetoric from individual leaders and the impact of potential government changes around parts of the region – there can be greater coordination both on ongoing efforts to engage the SAC as well as potential responses to future developments, such as a potential election in the country.

To be sure, there are limits to what ASEAN itself can do. The key drivers in managing the current situation in Myanmar continue to be the country’s various domestic political stakeholders and the will of the people of Myanmar, rather than any one outside actor including ASEAN. The organization’s manifold challenges and long list of agenda items, along with institutional features such as annually-rotating chairmanships, consensus-based decision-making and adherence to non-interference – however loosely that is interpreted – can act as constraints to potential actions taken, and there will be concerns among some in the grouping about avoiding a “single issue” lens in its focus even as it grapples with the situation in Myanmar.

ASEAN is also one among several external actors as the international community contending with the Myanmar issue, and scrutiny on its response must be balanced with a call for more constructive actors to do more and for spoilers to not make the situation worse. Without this balance, ASEAN will become just a convenient punching bag or scapegoat for the broader issue of waning international attention.

At the same time, recent history suggests that the implications of prolonged instability, strife, and devastation are unlikely to stay only within the borders of Myanmar, given the country’s geographical location within mainland Southeast Asia, its membership in ASEAN and the interests of key powers like China, India, Japan, Russia and the United States. And as with previous instances where deteriorations in Myanmar’s domestic environment have generated wider regional and international interest, no matter how unfair this may seem to some, the reality is that the headline-grabbing nature of Myanmar’s ongoing situation will likely continue to loom large or even dominate broader evaluations of the grouping’s priorities, be it its ability to manage crises while convening regional summitry or the ongoing work in furthering the decades-long process of community-building beyond 2025.

These realities reinforce the importance of ASEAN continuing to do what it can to tackle its growing Myanmar challenge, whatever the limits it has in doing so.