February 7, 2022
Feb. 1 marked one year since the Myanmar military grabbed power from the legitimate civilian government in Naypyidaw, followed by the brutal repression of its people that still goes on today. Thoughts and prayers go out to Myanmar’s people, not only for the 1,500 people killed and nearly 12,0000 arrested by the regime, but also for all those who have lost their freedom and dignity and are living in constant fear.
It also marks one year of shame for the international community for its failure to save the people of Myanmar. It comes as no surprise that the United Nations, particularly its Security Council, has been completely impotent. There were high hopes early on that ASEAN, given its proximity to Myanmar, could pull something off. This turned out to be a misplaced expectation.
Even though Myanmar is a member, ASEAN has been a big disappointment, but not for lack of trying.
ASEAN does not have the economic power to impose effective sanctions. That power is in the hands of the rich countries. ASEAN does not have the military power to intervene. That power rests with the Security Council to invoke the Responsibility to Protect mechanism.
ASEAN’s main and only power is diplomacy, and as limited as it is, it still has a few options at its disposal that it could use to make a difference.
The time has come for ASEAN to try a new and more decisive approach in finding a solution. ASEAN should immediately suspend Myanmar’s membership, as a notice perhaps for six or 12 months, before moving to expel the country from the organization.
The ASEAN Charter may not provide the mechanism to expel a member, but surely the junta’s continued defiance of the values and principles enshrined in the Charter, which all 10 members signed, should be ground enough to make this bold move.
While there is no guarantee that the Myanmar military will respond to these new pressures, ASEAN should proceed nevertheless, if only to protect its reputation. Suspending and eventually expelling Myanmar would stop the junta from using ASEAN as a shield against criticisms of its use of violence against its own people.
ASEAN has taken a lot of beating, somewhat unfairly, for its inability to resolve the Myanmar crisis this past year. It is rapidly losing its integrity and credibility as a regional organization and unless it acts decisively now, ASEAN’s future and its move toward an ASEAN community are at stake.
Even the notoriously slow ASEAN Way has its limits, and one year is enough time for the Myanmar junta to show whether it intends to remain part of ASEAN and play by the rules. Unfortunately, we are not seeing any such signs from the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, as it continues to defy the various entreaties ASEAN has made over the past year.
Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took the initiative to call an emergency summit in Jakarta in April last year, and against international criticism, took the risk of inviting a representative of the junta to sit and listen, if only to engage.
That meeting produced a five-point consensus that the junta representative also signed. Ten months later, the junta has not implemented a single point of the agreement.
In October, Myanmar was excluded from the ASEAN summit in Brunei. At the foreign ministers’ retreat slated for Feb. 16-17 in Siem Reap in Cambodia, Myanmar’s seat will again be left empty.
This is the correct approach, and ASEAN should withhold recognition of the Myanmar government until a democratically elected government is in place, whenever that may be.
ASEAN only needs to take this a little further by formally suspending Myanmar’s membership until such a time, but with a notice that, whether in six or 12 months, an expulsion would automatically follow. Next week’s foreign minister meeting would be the right time to take this bold move.
ASEAN can take the lead in the international community by withholding recognition of the regime, meaning not only its representation in ASEAN, but extending this to Myanmar’s missions in their capital cities.
This move risks Myanmar’s isolation from the international community, barely 10 years since it ended more than three decades of self-imposed isolation also by the military regime at the time.
This is not a prescription for ASEAN to abandon the Myanmar people. Individual ASEAN members, Indonesia, for one, can take the lead in helping find solutions outside the ASEAN framework.
ASEAN, which marks its 55th anniversary this year, is too precious to be dragged down by Myanmar’s continued belligerence, and as an organization, it should know its limitations in influencing the Myanmar generals. It has run its course as far as helping find a solution for Myanmar is concerned.
ASEAN needs to refocus its time and energy on other important agendas, including building the community, dealing with the South China Sea crisis, a common approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and the post-pandemic economic recovery efforts.
Let us call this organization “ASEAN-Minus 1” or “ASEAN-9” for now. But Myanmar can rejoin as soon as a credible and democratically elected government is put in place in Naypyidaw.