ASEAN’s Diplomacy: Walking A Tightrope

By Tunggul Wicaksono

Since the military ousted and detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the series of events in Myanmar poses several challenges to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; the ununified response from its member states and how to formulate a middle-ground policy, not to mention the vagueness principle of non-interference. In this regard, ASEAN’s diplomacy has been put to the test, while its reputation is at stake.

Up to now, more than 800 people had lost their lives following the nationwide unarmed protests against the junta. Earlier, Myanmar’s government declared martial law that described those defying military authority there as terrorists and set up a military tribunal for attacks on the security forces. Despite the military crackdown and the mobility pressure, ASEAN has not taken an immediate response to the crisis. The United Nations Security Council has condemned the violence, nonetheless.

The coup can be considered as tarnishing of ASEAN’s image among the reportage of mass violence and human rights violation. This, in turn, hinders the pursuit of a forward-looking strategy, including encouraging ASEAN member states to safeguard human rights as mentioned in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. The way of thinking that some conflicts are happened to be “internal affairs” rather than to take collective action is proof that ASEAN was not adequately prepared for such circumstances.

During that time, ASEAN had not recognized regional stability, which depends on human rights and the rule of law. When the Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting convened on 2 March 2021, the bloc failed to successfully condemn the coup, let alone address human rights violations. The chair’s statement seemed to only recall the normative principles of the ASEAN Charter without making any relevance to the ongoing crisis.

However, Indonesia’s initiative to discuss the situation in Myanmar through a Leaders’ Meeting has taken ASEAN’s diplomacy to the next level. All but three (The Philippines, Thailand, and Laos) leaders of the ten ASEAN member states attended the summit. The leaders gathered in Jakarta with Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, a commander-in-chief who led the military takeover and plunged Myanmar into unrest and turmoil.

Afterward, the meeting issued “Five-Point Consensus”; 1) there shall be immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties shall exercise utmost restraint, 2) constructive dialogue among all parties concerned shall commence to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people, 3) a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair shall facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, with the assistance of the Secretary General of ASEAN, 4) ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance through the AHA Centre and 5) the special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.

On a side note, Indonesia could have taken further action by investigating crimes against humanity in Myanmar. As a state party to the UN Convention Against Torture, Indonesia has a legal obligation to prosecute or extradite a suspected perpetrator on its territory. But, given the circumstances, its political strategy might not be as effective as buying more time for the prolonged crisis.

Meanwhile, regarding the fifth point, there is a lot of criticism triggered by escalating conflicts, democracy setbacks, and severe human rights violations. None of the member states can guarantee the effectiveness of the policy recommendation. First, the concerning factors could be to what extent ASEAN should intervene, considering its members’ belief in non-interference. Sadly, this concern was expressed by a neighboring country, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who said that Myanmar’s crisis is “their internal affairs”. Thailand worries more about the coronavirus outbreak due to the coup at the borders, despite solid evidence of military atrocities.

Second, free-riding countries. Some member states may become more reluctant to rely on other countries for strategic approaches while contributing to no action. ASEAN must treat Myanmar’s crisis as a non-zero-sum game, and by this approach, of course, there is no universally accepted solution. But one thing for sure, the mediator needs to find a common interest. It could be by maintaining regional stability that is beneficial for all, leveraging ASEAN’s human rights mechanism to ensure the protections that meet international standards, or, more specifically, buying more time to hold an election based on democratic principle assisted by ASEAN’s envoys. Hence, win-win solution.

Until this time, ASEAN has yet to compromise the reconciliation mission to Myanmar, let alone to plan a strategic resolution. Most recently, a scheduled trip between Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Dato Erywan Yusof and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi to prepare envisioned dispatch of a special envoy to Myanmar has derived a fatal blunder. They had already crossed the line when the meeting with Gen. Hlaing was not accompanied by prior notification and briefed by ASEAB foreign ministers. They also failed to meet in person with the country’s detained leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Moreover, the ASEAN Secretariat released a report following the visitation and mentioned the assumed titles of Myanmar junta Gen. Hlaing, indicating an open recognition of the junta. At the same time, ASEAN only maintains its recognition of the Aung San Suu Kyi government. The report was later removed eventually. Shortly, the diplomatic mission somehow turned into a backfire operation.

Regarding the special envoy, ASEAN has entrusted Brunei Darussalam to pick the candidate, although the process is relatively stagnant. One way or another, Myanmar must accept the candidacy as soon as possible. The more time wasted, the higher possibility that the consensus left unimplemented.

Such developments to tackle Myanmar’s turbulence have shed light that ASEAN lacks a vivid strategy and lacks preparation. In some way, ASEAN’s diplomacy needs to be reinvented. This could be as plain as recognizing state-to-state relations. Accommodating attitude towards the other, finding the gap in between, and encouraging collective action could also be a breakthrough in outreach efforts. Given the narrative, there is still a chance to restore ASEAN’s credibility to manage the crisis properly, rather than persistently hold a never-ending talkfest.

 

About Writer

  • Tunggul Wicaksono is a Research Manager at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada. He can be reached through e-mail at tunggulwicaksono@ugm.ac.id.
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