The Myanmar military’s brazen coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically-elected government has sent shockwaves across Southeast Asia and revealed new cracks in their increasingly trade-driven collective bloc.
The unfolding crisis has jolted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) following years of collective silence and complacency over democratic backsliding and mass atrocities in Myanmar.
In troubled ASEAN democracies such as the Philippines, the overthrow of a democratically-elected regime in a neighboring country has raised fears of a similar authoritarian takeover amid the bloc’s muted response.
ASEAN’s ten members, far from taking a united stance, are roughly split into three camps, reflecting both their divergent geopolitical orientations as well as distinct domestic political situations.
On one hand, authoritarian regimes in Cambodia and Thailand echoed the position of major powers such as China, which has opposed international sanctions and portrayed the crisis in Myanmar as a purely domestic affair.
Cambodian leader Hun Sen, who has practically eviscerated domestic opposition in recent years, dismissed Myanmar’s military coup as purely a matter of “internal affairs.”
“Cambodia does not comment on the internal affairs of any country at all, either within the ASEAN framework or any other country,” the Cambodia strongman said.
In Thailand, where the military is still at the apex of power after a criticized transition to electoral democracy after five years of coup rule, Deputy Prime Minister and ex-soldier Prawit Wongsuwan echoed Cambodia’s position in describing the coup an “internal matter.”
Myanmar’s millions of migrants in Thailand have openly and loudly protested the coup, with at least one demonstration in Bangkok near the Myanmar embassy roughly dispersed by authorities.
Meanwhile, ASEAN’s leading members such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have taken a tougher stance on the brewing crisis in Myanmar. Singapore, the region’s most developed nation and a major investor in Myanmar, expressed “grave concern about the latest situation.”
“We are monitoring the situation closely and hope all parties involved will exercise restraint, maintain dialogue, and work towards a positive and peaceful outcome,” said Singapore’s Foreign Ministry in a statement.
The Muslim-majority nations of Indonesia and Malaysia, which have been critical of the Myanmar military’s mass atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya minority and have accepted thousands of Rohingya refugees and migrants, havd also adopted tougher language.
“Indonesia calls for the observance of the principles of ASEAN Charter, among other things, adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government,” Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement just hours into the crisis.
“Indonesia urges all parties in Myanmar to exercise self-restraint and put forth dialogue in finding solutions to challenges so as not to exacerbate the condition,” the statement added.
As the presumptive leader of ASEAN, Indonesia reminded Myanmar of its obligations under the “ASEAN Charter,” a nonbinding regional document that calls for “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.”
As one of the world’s largest democracies, Indonesia emphasized the “principles of democracy and constitutional government” in an unmistakable rejection of the Myanmar generals’ coup.
Malaysia similarly expressed “serious concern” and urged the junta to “give utmost priority” to the restoration of political order and rule of law.
“Malaysia supports the continuation of discussion among Myanmar’s leaders to avoid adverse consequences to the people and state of Myanmar, especially in the current, difficult Covid-19 pandemic situation,” Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry said.
In recent years, Malaysia has taken the most critical stance on what the United Nations has described as the junta’s “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” operations against the Rohingya ethnic minority.
Over the past decade, large numbers of Rohingya refugees have sought refuge in Malaysia following days if not months of perilous journey through regional waters.
While ASEAN has collectively adhered to the principle of non-interference, Malaysia has been the lone voice calling for more decisive action against Myanmar’s chronic abuses.
Back in 2019, for instance, Malaysia openly called for “perpetrators of the Rohingya issue to be brought to justice,” a stark contrast with ASEAN’s heavily watered down statement on the worst humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia since the end of the Cold War.
Over Twitter, Malaysia’s then Foreign Minister Saifuddin Bin Abdullah called for the repatriation of close to a million Rohingya refugees from neighboring countries, especially in Bangladesh, and called on the Myanmar regime to “include the citizenship of the Rohingya” in their reform agenda.
Meanwhile, Brunei, ASEAN’s current chairman, as well as heavily authoritarian Vietnam and Laos, refrained from making official comments days into the Myanmar crisis.
The most curious case, however, is the Philippines, where there are visible divisions within the government as well as the broader political establishment.
In the past decades, the Philippine military played a critical role in the “people power” revolts that ousted the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship (1986) and deeply corrupt Joseph Estrada presidency (2001).
Unsurprisingly, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a former general, quickly dismissed threats of a similar military coup at home, something which “will never happen” since the populist president “has our full support” and also enjoys “very high approval ratings.”
Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte, a democratically elected authoritarian populist with close ties to China, and his key political allies have largely refrained from criticizing Myanmar’s coup.
Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque broadly echoed the stance of China, which has already used its veto power to block criticism of the coup at the UN Security Council.
“We expect that at the soonest possible, we hope it would return to normal, although what happened in Myanmar is an internal matter and we would not interfere in it,” said Duterte’s spokesman, who emphasized that the priority of the government is the safety of Filipinos residing in Myanmar.
Over Twitter, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, another key Duterte ally, said the Philippines will “watch and see for ourselves” how the situation develops in coming days, downplaying the coup as a “chess move” by one of the competing political factions in Myanmar.
“Let’s hope it is for her (Suu Kyi) and her democratic project’s protection; it’s happened; the military can also close ranks for that,” he said, partially echoing the Myanmar military’s claim that the coup was for the protection of the country’s constitutional order.
The Philippine diplomatic establishment and democratic opposition, however, have taken a diametrically divergent position, echoing those of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
“The Philippine government is following with deep concern the developing situation in Myanmar, and is especially concerned with the safety of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” said the Department of Foreign Affairs in a statement, directly contradicting the position of the foreign affairs secretary days earlier.
Meanwhile, opposition Congressman Edcel Lagman has lambasted the “nonchalant attitude of the Duterte administration” on the Myanmar crisis, which he said, “only confirms and defends the militarization of the government and its implementation of repressive policies.”
Lagman is one of the petitioners in an ongoing Supreme Court case on Duterte’s hasty passage of a controversial Anti-Terrorism Law, which critics believe is just one of the latest instances of authoritarian exploitation of the Covid-19 pandemic across the region.
“While the protection of Filipinos in Myanmar is a major concern of the Philippine government, the death of democracy in Myanmar as a result of a military coup d’état should not be sidelined by the Duterte administration as a purely domestic matter,” Lagman said, calling on the government to take a tougher stance.
The “entire free world must condemn instantly and unequivocally,” he said.