In the urgent meeting in Indonesia of 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN, in April 2021, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing — the architect of Myanmar’s coup two months earlier — was welcomed by his soon-to-be peers.
Everything seemed to be working out for the Myanmar junta regime. Min Aung Hlaing likely believed the international community would soon recognize his seizure of power as an irreversible fait accompli. He probably assumed that based on its history, ASEAN — ostensibly the primary promoter of peace and stability in the region — would treat him as the new legitimate leader of the country and that Myanmar citizens would subsequently stop resisting the new, universally accepted military government.
After all, tolerating coups and other authoritarian acts had become commonplace for ASEAN. The organization, focused on the non-intervention/consensus principle manifested in the so-called “ASEAN way,” doesn’t directly challenge its members for human right violations, let alone coup d’états.
In 2014, in its tepid response to Thai military leaders deposing the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the official ASEAN statement by heads of state called for “political stability” in Thailand while expressing no concern about the coup.
This characteristic timidity is why ASEAN’s refusal to seat Min Aung Hlaing at its biannual leaders’ summit a few months later was so stunning — it represented the harshest diplomatic sanction it’s ever handed down to a fellow member state in more than five decades.
According to the ASEAN charter, the summit is the “supreme policy-making body,” with the ultimate power to decide upon any “serious breach of the Charter or non-compliance” and other disputes where consensus cannot be reached.
World leaders were invited to the October 2021 summit, including United States President Joe Biden. Barring Min Aung Hlaing delivered a significant blow to his government’s hopes of international recognition.
More importantly, it appears this wasn’t just a stunt by ASEAN members — there were clearly disputes among the ASEAN members on whether the military could represent Myanmar at the summit at all. ASEAN’s credibility as a rules-based organization was on the line in the aftermath of the Myanmar coup and the subsequent deadly crackdowns carried out by the military.
Those discussions among members of ASEAN suggest the organization might be evolving.
Before and after excluding Myanmar’s top general from its biannual summit, the language in recent ASEAN literature also hints at sympathies toward the country’s democratic causes.
ASEAN’s initiative to address the Myanmar problem, known as the Five-Point Consensus, emphasizes its intent to “facilitate mediation of the dialogue process” and “meet with all parties concerned.” It’s one of the few times the organization has ever explicitly offered to work directly with a party that’s not in power amid a member state’s internal conflict.
Meeting with all parties
In fact, this ASEAN provision is the main reason why the Myanmar military junta refuses to adhere to the consensus.
A visit to Myanmar by ASEAN Special Envoy Erywan Yusof was cancelled after the junta would not allow him to visit the detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi or any members of the National League for Democracy, her pre-coup ruling liberal democratic party.
The conclusion of the October summit suggested a further evolution. The organization pledged a commitment to “rule of law, good governance, democracy and constitutional government.” The member states promised to “strike an appropriate balance to the application of ASEAN principles” on the situation in Myanmar.
Some experts see no progress. The Diplomat magazine asked if it really mattered that ASEAN banned Min Aung Hlaing from its October summit without a long-term plan on the situation in Myanmar.
What’s more, Myanmar’s junta has yet to adhere to any of the Five-Point Consensus provisions. Snubbing the general came with few costs but produced a big public relations boost for ASEAN. And its decision received support from Brunei, which is where the chair of the organization hails from this year.
It was a close 5-4 ruling of the ASEAN member states to ban Min Aung Hlaing. As soon as Cambodia takes over ASEAN’s rotating chair, progress could be reversed, especially since the Cambodian prime minister has met with and expressed support for Myanmar’s military rulers.
Hope on the horizon?
Nonetheless, it’s significant that a majority of ASEAN members actively punished and refused to recognize a coup government due to the blatant violations of human rights.
Will we see the day when the ASEAN Charter fully rejects unconstitutional changes of government and undemocratic elections similar to the Constitutive Act of the African Union that implicitly condemns authoritarianism?
Probably not any time soon. International law evolves slowly, focusing on universally agreed-upon norms that can require decades to take shape. Nonetheless, it’s a positive step in the right direction.