When Internal Becomes International: ASEAN’s Role in Myanmar

By Diego Lingad

All eyes are on Myanmar following the country’s February 1 coup d’état. The international community is calling on The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to help find a solution. But ASEAN members are far from agreement on what role the grouping should play. Escalating violence in Myanmar, meanwhile, is pushing member states to make uncomfortable decisions.
Following the coup, Brunei, as the grouping’s current chair, quickly issued a statement calling for a return to “normalcy” in Myanmar. But Indonesia has emerged as the most vocal member of ASEAN, convening  others to discuss the crisis. Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei have appeared to support these efforts while others were more muted. Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam initially called the situation in Myanmar an internal affair. And Laos has taken a wait-and-see approach, calling for stability while expressing support for ASEAN. Myanmar itself, represented in ASEAN meetings by the new junta-appointed foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin, further complicates the discussions. The group failed to produce a joint statement on the coup at an informal ministerial meeting on March 2. The best it could do was a chair’s statement calling for “all parties to refrain from instigating further violence” and saying the group is ready to assist with reconciliation.
The most surprising outcome of the meeting was the shift in language coming from the Philippines. Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. reversed his initial hands-off approach and called for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and return to the pre-coup state of affairs. He also clarified on Twitter that the ASEAN principle of non-interference “is not a blanket approval or tacit consent for wrong to be done [in Myanmar].” Similar policy shifts by Southeast Asian states should be expected as they recognize the consequences of Myanmar’s escalating crisis on regional stability. Thailand has already shifted from its initial position, now recognizing the risk that comes from its shared border with Myanmar and expressed concern at the growing violence against protestors. Bangkok  has begun preparing refugee camps at the border, recalling the situation in 1988 when thousands of exiles fled Myanmar after a violent military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. But while they publicly prepare for an influx of refugees, Thai security forces are reportedly turning back civilians fleeing a recent aerial campaign by the Myanmar military in Karen State. 
The principle of non-interference remains a common justification for ASEAN members wanting to avoid taking an uncomfortable stand on the coup. But allowing Myanmar to become an international pariah risks ASEAN’s credibility and undermines its oft-cited “centrality” in handling regional affairs. Beyond reputational risks, having a junta appointee representing Myanmar in ASEAN meetings will limit the group’s ability to engage with the world. The Biden administration, which is looking to restart robust engagement with international partners, will avoid ASEAN meetings that legitimize the junta and give it an international platform. Others will likely follow suit. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently acknowledged that “ASEAN will face many awkward questions” as a result of the situation in Myanmar.  As a result, more member states could toughen their stance on the coup.
The world is watching ASEAN’s next moves. But the “ASEAN Way”—a consensus driven, non-confrontational decision-making process that puts national sovereignty and self-interest above all else—still necessitates managing expectations. The bloc sees its strength as being the ability to keep open lines of communication unavailable to any other multilateral group. The UN Special Envoy for Myanmar has apparently approached ASEAN members for this reason after being denied access to Myanmar. ASEAN governments hope that this ability to continue dialogue will eventually coax Myanmar’s military back into a democratic process. 
But with violence in Myanmar escalating, the world is not waiting for the ASEAN Way. While ASEAN debates whether and how to make a statement on the violence, the United States and others, at the urging of UN officials, are imposing ever tighter economic sanctions and severing diplomatic channels. The immediate effect of this pressure will be limited against a regime that is ready to weather international isolation. But it could give the more engaged voices within ASEAN greater leverage in attempting to broker a long-term political solution. To do that, ASEAN will also need to engage with the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the outlawed group representing the National League for Democracy-led democratic government ousted by the coup. Engaging both the Tatmadaw and the CRPH will be challenging since the two sides “have no appetite to enter into dialogue,” according to Indonesia’s representative to ASEAN’s human rights commission. But persisting with parallel engagement will be necessary to have any hope of facilitating meaningful dialogue, and to avoid legitimizing the military government.

Diego Lingad is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.