Yesterday, Thai PBS published a report stating that military-ruled Myanmar will give up its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2026, due to the intensifying conflict within the country.
The report was based on unnamed diplomatic sources, who claimed that the military junta will not chair ASEAN “due to the domestic situation and the country’s unpreparedness.” According to Thai PBS, the rotating chair will instead be taken up by the Philippines, and Myanmar will defer its chairmanship until 2027. Laos is slated to chair the Southeast Asian bloc next year, followed by Malaysia in 2025.
While the decision has yet to be confirmed by either Myanmar or the Philippines (let alone the ASEAN Secretariat itself), it would not be surprising, given the extent and magnitude of the challenges currently facing Myanmar’s military and the likely Western backlash should it be allowed to host high-level ASEAN meetings. Myanmar did much the same in 2006, when the junta of the day agreed to forego its chairmanship amid Western pressure regarding the imprisonment of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other human rights issues.
Indeed, the nationwide conflict that has flared up since the military’s takeover in February 2021, and the febrile, fluid nature of the situation in many parts of the country, makes it hard to know what state the country will even be in by the time 2026 rolls around.
The junta hopes that after crushing the resistance to its rule, a stage-managed election will pave the way toward a return to military-backed quasi-civilian rule. But there are serious questions as to whether this will be feasible under the current circumstances. Last month, the military-backed State Administration Council (SAC) announced that it was extending its state of emergency by a further six months – the fourth extension since the coup – delaying elections that it had vowed to hold by the end of 2023.
The announcement amounted to an admission, however veiled, that the armed forces do not control enough of the country to hold even baldly fraudulent polls. In this context, it is very likely that even if the junta clings onto power until 2026, it will be in no position to host the rota of summits and sideline meetings that are required of the ASEAN chair.
Equally uncertain is how ASEAN would deal with the prospect of a rump military-ruled Myanmar taking the organization’s helm. Since late 2021, ASEAN has excluded junta representatives from its summits and high-level meetings, but this policy has been increasingly challenged by a number of ASEAN states led by Thailand, which argue that engaging the military directly is the only way for the bloc to end the country’s conflict.
Would ASEAN agree to Naypyidaw assuming the ASEAN chairmanship in 2026? Or would it instead force or convince Myanmar to relinquish its seat in order to avoid a likely Western boycott, as it did in 2006?
Given the widening divides between member states on how to handle the Myanmar crisis, however, there is no guarantee of this question being resolved via consensus. The year 2026 thus loomed as a potential point of rupture for ASEAN. By offering to defer its chairmanship, as in 2006, the SAC may now have liberated the bloc’s other nine members from the burden of a very difficult decision.
This is assuming, once again, that the report is accurate. One thing that the Thai PBS article does not make clear is why Myanmar in 2026 – just over two years from now – would be unable to host ASEAN, but why this would suddenly become feasible in 2027.
Given the historical scale and nature of the current conflict, and the fact that there is as yet no end in sight, Myanmar’s future as a functioning state – let alone a constructive member of ASEAN – would appear to be very much open to question.