The coup against the Myanmar government can be considered the most serious threat to ASEAN’s importance in regional diplomacy since the second world war.
Aaron Connelly writes that how the organization will respond to this challenge will have lasting consequences for its position at the heart of the regional institutional architecture.
When the permanent representative of the Myanmar government in the United Nations was greeted with three fingers in solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrators, the Western diplomats in the General Assembly and their homeland were met by millions with their brave stance in defending Myanmar’s democratic transition. However, their actions also made clear the great threat the February 1 coup posed to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) due to its central role in regional diplomacy.
Some analysts have denied the role the regional organization could usefully play in the field of diplomacy in this regard and suggested that ASEAN would not want to interfere in a member’s affairs. However, the history of ASEAN shows that the norm of non-intervention is not as strong as is usually depicted, and in any case the junta’s actions create a situation in which the bloc cannot ignore.
The identity of Myanmar’s legitimate government is now openly debated. Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun in New York puts himself in the service of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, while Myanmar’s UN representatives in New York and Geneva, with Ambassador Myint Thu in Geneva receiving instructions from the new military regime, opposing parties kept. (CPRH) is a group of lawmakers who won seats in the November elections and is in line with Provincial Adviser Aung San Suu Kyi.
The credentials committee of the General Assembly will not meet until August, but it is unclear that the junta will have to accept an ambassador. It can leave Myanmar’s seat empty or accredit an ambassador from the pro-democracy CRPH. The General Assembly took similar steps after the coups in Cambodia and Afghanistan in the 1990s. Unless Tatmadaw relinquishes power in Naypyidaw, the dispute over who has the right to speak for Myanmar on the world stage will continue for a while.
ASEAN has traditionally made less scrutiny on the political systems of member states, but the legitimacy crisis has already begun to affect its consultations. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi made preparations to fly to Naypyidaw to meet with the military regime’s foreign minister, U Wunna Maung Lwin, during shuttle diplomacy last week. Although Retno later announced that he was planning his trip in part to encourage the junta to stop the violence, protesters quickly appeared outside the Indonesian embassy in Yangon and clarified their anger on social media.
Retno instead briefly met U Wunna Maung Lwin at Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok. In his remarks after the meeting, Retno paid attention to referring to U Wunna Maung Lwin only by name, not by title, and noting that the Indonesian diplomats were also in contact with the CRPH.
Just hours after the coup on February 1, Brunei issued a presidential statement on behalf of ASEAN calling for a “return to normal”, the partial democracy that characterized Myanmar’s pre-coup political system. However, ASEAN member countries are in a difficult situation. For Myanmar’s neighbors, there will always be regional security issues that require consultation with those in power in Naypyidaw.
It is in ASEAN’s interest to maintain open lines of communication with the Tatmadaw while in power, even if there is no reason other than to use these channels to encourage the army to return to their barracks so that it does not block the current political instability. Violence that led to another humanitarian catastrophe, such as the escape of 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar in 2017. However, while engaging with the junta, ASEAN takes the risk of legitimizing the coup that poses these risks.
Other governments farther away will make different calculations. New Zealand has already suspended contact with the junta. ASEAN dialogue partners like the United States and the European Union, who are forced to choose between recognizing the junta or the CRPH, are unlikely to choose the junta. The EU tends to focus more on human rights concerns than geopolitics in Asia; and the new Biden administration in the United States, though focused on geopolitical rivalry with Beijing, has also made the revival of democracy a cornerstone of its agenda.
These changes will further complicate ASEAN’s negotiations. Even as competition between the US and China intensified, ASEAN was able to gain a greater influence on regional diplomacy because the great powers recognize its position at the heart of regional institutional architecture. In practice, this means that these powers allow ASEAN to convene and chair major diplomatic summits and shape the discussions at these meetings in ways that suit the interests of the bloc.
But from time to time, the US and Europe resisted the centralization of ASEAN as agreements on the role of ASEAN were known. Former US President George W. Bush held the ASEAN shoulder to shoulder for refusing to sit at the table with the leaders of Myanmar’s previous junta, and the US and EU skipped meetings in the mid-2000s to protest their plans, then postponed to allow it. Myanmar will head the organization.
The current crisis presents a much more difficult dilemma for outside powers considering their engagement with ASEAN. Contrary to the situation 15 years ago, two separate Myanmar governments now claim to represent Myanmar. If Tatmadaw is still in power in August, will US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sit at the table with the junta’s man at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum? Will President Joe Biden have dinner with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at the East Asia Summit in November? What about the European leaders who have a relatively small share in the geopolitics of the region?
Therefore, the coup is the most serious threat to the ASEAN centralization that the organization has faced since its membership and its expanding role after the Cold War. How the organization will deal with this challenge, starting with a special meeting on March 2, will have important consequences for regional diplomacy in the coming years. In the absence of ASEAN centralization, Southeast Asia may lose its significant influence on the course of regional diplomacy, as rivalry between the US and China intensifies.