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ASEAN’s credibility and centrality on the line amid crisis in Myanmar

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Myanmar migrant workers living in Thailand flashing the three-finger salute and shouting slogans during a rally to mark International Migrants Day outside the United Nations building in Bangkok, Thailand, on 17 December 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Anusak Laowilas).

In Brief

ASEAN grapples with heightened challenges in upholding regional security and preserving its credibility amid the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. Divergent positions among member states, including Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam, have resulted in a lack of a unified response. The evolving situation has given rise to a deepening humanitarian and political crisis, marked by growing civil unrest and escalating conflict. Fears of a potential state collapse in Myanmar have prompted Thailand to transition from tacit support to actively applying pressure on the regime in Myanmar, seeking resolution through a strategy centered around ASEAN cooperation.


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During the Cold War, ASEAN states found a unifying rationale — holding back communism at the
Mekong River. The unifying force of anti-communism served ASEAN states well and provided ASEAN
itself with a veneer of credibility.

In the post-Cold War era, ASEAN shifted its focus to economic cooperation, its most successful area of cooperation. ASEAN centrality is a de facto outcome of US foreign policy during the Cold War but also a hard-won point of pride for the original five members of ASEAN.

ASEAN member states have increasingly been unable to find common ground on regional security issues, best exemplified by the lack of a joint communique at the 2012 ASEAN Summit in Phnom Phen due to divergent positions on the South China Sea dispute.

The situation in Myanmar again threatens regional security and ASEAN’s credibility. With China and Russia opposing arms embargoes and sanctions, the United Nations Security Council has essentially subcontracted the work of solving the crisis to ASEAN. But the junta in Myanmar has steadfastly refused to engage in meaningful dialogue to end the crisis or cede power. Since the February 2021 coup, ASEAN has struggled to cope with the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in its backyard and its once cherished centrality and unity is nowhere to be found.

The April 2021 ASEAN Summit further highlighted the fractured nature of internal ASEAN affairs. Cambodia and Laos took a neutral stance on Myanmar. Indonesia voiced frustration, emphasising that any peace process must be a ‘Myanmar-led and Myanmar-owned process with ASEAN as a facilitator’. Malaysia counselled patience while Thailand discouraged sanctions. The Philippines equated the need for ASEAN to address the issue to ‘the hurt of the small finger [being] felt by the whole body’. Singapore stridently refused to legitimise coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, stressing that ‘ASEAN needs to take action as silence will affect ASEAN’s credibility’.

The most interesting position by far was that of Vietnam. At the time, Vietnam was a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Hanoi used its enhanced stature in the international arena to shield Myanmar and paper over the fractured and divergent positions of ASEAN members.

Sadly, it has become apparent that if ASEAN continues to sit back and watch Myanmar implode, there will be a major human rights disaster that will flow over into other ASEAN states.

Myanmar has long been discussed as a nation on the brink of becoming a failed state. Economists and political experts have warned that Myanmar is teetering on the verge of collapse. With a military council in control, the country’s economy, politics, education, healthcare and society have deteriorated significantly.

There is also escalating civil unrest and conflict in the country. This conflict has intensified after one of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed alliances, the Three Brotherhood Alliance, initiated a coordinated attack on military outposts in northern Shan State. The operation, dubbed Operation 1027, aimed to defend territory, combat the military dictatorship and address online fraud along the border.

The Chinese border in the north has closed, leaving refugees little choice but to flee east across the border to Thailand or south into Malaysia and Brunei. The ongoing civil war in Myanmar has led to a severe humanitarian crisis, resulting in the displacement of a significant number of individuals. It is estimated that around 1.6 million people have been internally displaced since the military coup. While approximately 9000 refugees have sought shelter in the Mae Sariang district of Northwestern Thailand where humanitarian aid is being provided, the overall situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate.

The central issue in resolving the crisis is whether principles of democratic legitimacy and basic humanitarian standards should be prioritised even if it means sacrificing ASEAN solidarity and consensus.

Failure to advocate for the wellbeing of citizens within its member states would damage ASEAN’s credibility and legitimacy. But merely denouncing the regime won’t be enough to achieve the goals of normalising the situation and restoring a more benign political order in Myanmar. The Five-Point Consensus peace plan endorsed in Jakarta in April 2021 by ASEAN’s member states, including Myanmar’s military junta, has been inadequately enforced and only partially implemented.

During the reform process of 2009–2010, which Thailand spearheaded, a consensus position on Myanmar was found, with the understanding that if reforms did not take place soon ASEAN members would appreciate if Myanmar rescinded its membership. The current Thai government is changing the approach towards Myanmar from one of disinterest and tacit support to one of pressure and returning to an ASEAN-centred approach. This is largely due to fears in Bangkok of regime and state collapse in Myanmar and the serious security ramifications that would ensue.

It is essential that the original five ASEAN members begin to speak with one voice. If they do, a regional tipping point may be reached. Only time will tell if ASEAN members can get their act together, push for the Tatmadaw’s withdrawal and restore their credibility to the world. Given that credibility is ASEAN’s currency, it is essential that it move to shore up regional order.

William J Jones is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Social Science Division at Mahidol University International College.

Douglas Rhein is Associate Professor of Psychology at Mahidol University International College.

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