SINGAPORE – More than a month on from a democracy-suspending military coup in Myanmar, many see the junta’s increasingly violent crackdown on dissent as approaching a point of no return. As the United States and others press for tougher sanctions on the junta’s leaders, Southeast Asian nations are under pressure to intervene to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

With its credibility on the line after past failures to tackle human rights crises in the region, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is still widely seen as the best hope for a diplomatic solution amid uncharacteristic outspokenness from some of its member states who are pushing to build a regional consensus on the need for Myanmar to return to democracy.

But the grouping isn’t speaking with one voice, with some of its members describing the putsch as an internal matter, consistent with the bloc’s long-held tradition of non-interference in members’ domestic affairs. Moreover, the organization’s diplomatic efforts have been met with skepticism by those protesting across Myanmar who are staunchly opposed to any engagement that would confer legitimacy onto Naypyidaw’s generals.

Questions persist as to whether ASEAN will pragmatically endorse new elections in the country as part of a negotiated compromise, which critics fear would ultimately lead to a military-engineered outcome – potentially with the nation’s powerful army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, 64, taking the reigns as elected president under a so-called “guided democracy” framework.

“ASEAN, at the end of the day, may have to accept that the military is in control now and stomach the unpleasantries of working with the generals or whichever party they engineer as winner of an unfree election at the end of the year,” said Hunter Marston, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University.

The grouping most recently failed to reach a breakthrough when an informal online meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers was held on March 2, two days after one of the worst spasms of violence since the military deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on February 1. Wunna Maung Lwin, Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister, was in attendance.

Myanmar migrants living in Thailand take part in a demonstration remembering protesters killed while rallying against the military coup in their home country and calling for the results of the 2020 Myanmar election to be upheld outside the Indonesian embassy in Bangkok, February 23, 2021. Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP

Brunei, which this year holds ASEAN’s annually rotating chairmanship, issued a statement after the meeting that expressed concern about the situation in Myanmar and called on “all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility.”

The statement, crafted to be palatable to Myanmar in keeping with ASEAN’s principle of consensus, also acknowledged “calls for the release of political detainees”, without directly naming Suu Kyi or ousted President Win Myint, both of whom remain in detention after the military junta charged them with various politicized offenses.

On March 3, just a day after ASEAN’s outreach and calls for restraint, Myanmar’s security forces once again opened live fire on protesters, killing 38 people on the bloodiest day since the coup and prompting comparisons with China’s deadly 1989 crackdown on student-led protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

“The scenes emerging from Myanmar are sickening, and come straight out of the playbook of this callous and murderous military,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker and chairman of the advocacy group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

“The world cannot stand idly by as the military guns down its people, and attempts to return the country to full-scale isolationist rule.”

More than 50 people have so far been killed and many more wounded, with scores of activists and members of the toppled National League for Democracy (NLD) party detained since the military took power and declared a one-year state of emergency. The military has promised to hold new elections thereafter without offering a specific timeline.

The junta’s power grab has ignited global outrage and ended a decade-long period of liberalization that saw the NLD in a de facto power-sharing agreement with the military – known locally as the Tatmadaw – since 2015. Prior to the putsch, the military alleged fraud in the November 2020 election, which the NLD won handily with a landslide victory of 83%.  

Experts widely see the coup as the Tatmadaw’s reaction to its dismal electoral performance – the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) clinched only 33 of 476 available seats – and fears that Suu Kyi’s civilian government would move to curtail the military’s outsized constitutionally-ascribed powers in her second term.

“ASEAN wants to see normalcy restored in Myanmar. Obviously, both the Tatmadaw and the NLD need to hold dialogues in the future to work out a common plan and timeframe,” said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok.

Protesters hold posters with the image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration against the military coup in Naypyidaw on February 28, 2021. Photo: AFP/Stringer

The foreign ministers of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines explicitly called for the release of Suu Kyi, Win Myint and other political detainees following Tuesday’s meeting, a position that was not endorsed by all summit attendees. Jakarta has so far taken the diplomatic lead on ASEAN’s efforts to resolve the intensifying crisis.

“Restoring democracy back on track must be pursued,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi following the grouping’s meeting. “Indonesia underlines that the will, the interest and the voices of the people of Myanmar must be respected,” she added, in what could be interpreted as an implicit call on the junta to respect the 2020 election results.

Yet protesters were incensed when leaked details of an Indonesian proposal to hold the junta to its promise of holding a new election surfaced last week. Though the plan purportedly called for election monitors to be present and Suu Kyi and other NLD politicians to be released and allowed to contest, activists are staunchly opposed to any new election.

Singapore’s leaders have been forthright and candid in their assessment of the situation in Myanmar. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan earlier this week urged a return to the path of democratic transition, saying the country was “appalled” by the “inexcusable” use of live rounds against unarmed protesters and that ASEAN’s credibility and reputation were at stake.

The wealthy city-state is Myanmar’s largest foreign investor, with a cumulative investment of US$22.7 billion as of January 2020. In a recent interview with the BBC, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the coup as a “tragic” step back for Myanmar but questioned the use of economic sanctions that he said would harm the population at large.

ASEAN, which groups Myanmar, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, is seen as ineffectual by some precisely for its customary consensus-based decision making and strict observance of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, which makes coordinated approaches to thorny issues more difficult.  

“ASEAN makes decisions by consensus so is constrained by getting member states on board,” said Alistair D B Cook, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “There is active diplomacy ongoing to see how far consensus will go in response to the military takeover of government.”

In a photo takn on June 7, 2018 Singapore's foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan arrives at Pyongyang international airport.
Balakrishnan is making a two-day trip to Pyongyang, as preparations for a summit in the city-state between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un accelerate. / AFP PHOTO / Kim Won-Jin
Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in a file photo. Image: AFP/Kim Won-Jin

The regional grouping’s widely criticized as weak response to the Myanmar military’s deadly 2017 crackdown on ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims is a case in point. That crisis exposed divisions among ASEAN members that prevented consensus and ultimately scuttled its efforts to meaningfully intervene, a scenario with parallels to the present.   

“The democracies like Indonesia and Malaysia would like to see the peaceful resolution of the current crisis, ideally with a return to the NLD in power,” said Marston. “Autocrats like Hun Sen in Cambodia and Prayut Chan-ocha in Thailand prefer to see ASEAN’s norm of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs upheld.”

Just as the regional bloc stumbled in its attempts to articulate a clear solution to the Rohingya crisis, regarded as a genocide by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), critics say that the intrinsic structure of ASEAN’s institutions effectively allowed Myanmar to put guardrails on the grouping’s interventions, a precedent that could once again hamper a meaningful resolution.

Others argue that ASEAN’s adherence to consensus has kept Myanmar at the table, allowing channels of communication to remain open while gaining a degree of influence with military leaders, who some feel may yet be influenced by collective peer pressure. Global powers have urged ASEAN to play a role in mediating the crisis on that basis.

The regional bloc has been identified as a potentially pivotal diplomatic player by the United Nations, the European Union, China and others. The US, meanwhile, has sought to build a coordinated international approach to the crisis with ASEAN playing a leading role, despite the bloc’s opposition to sanctions and distaste for democratic grandstanding.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have reportedly been in close consultation with their ASEAN counterparts. The Joe Biden administration has been working to set up a special ASEAN-US meeting of foreign ministers, which the ASEAN chair’s recent statement said would occur “in the near future.”

“The US is looking for a collective, or at least, coordinated response which focuses on countries in the region,” said Cook. “For the greatest leverage possible, a bespoke approach is required bringing together key ASEAN members – Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore will push the dial as far as possible – with dialogue partners like Australia and Japan.”

The crisis is being seen as an early test of Biden’s alliance-based diplomacy strategy in Asia and is a reversal of one of the few concrete achievements of the first Barack Obama administration, which normalized relations with Myanmar under the direction of then-assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell, now Biden’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.

Myanmar’s Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing salutes during the 73rd anniversary of the Martyrs’ Day ceremony in Yangon on July 19, 2020. Photo: AFP / Ye Aung Thu / Pool

Washington has already imposed targeted sanctions against top generals, who were previously sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act following the Rohingya crisis. The Biden administration has said it is preparing further measures, though it ultimately has limited leverage over the junta.

Myanmar’s generals have ties to powerful local companies but few overseas interests that could be impacted by financial sanctions. Another strategic consideration is that broad Western sanctions could further push the ruling Tatmadaw into the embrace of China, which has made massive infrastructure investments in the country in recent years.

By coordinating its approach with ASEAN, which is seen as more able to rally support from veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council like China and Russia that are skeptical of Western democracies’ foreign policy maneuvers, the US is also keen to signal a strategic refocus following outgoing president Donald Trump’s relative neglect of Southeast Asia.

“ASEAN will play the so-called good cops, while the Westerners waging sanctions will play the bad cops,” said Chongkittavorn, who added that a similar approach convinced Myanmar’s military leaders to accept international aid relief following the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster despite prevailing misgivings over Western interference.  

But as the body count rises without ASEAN making diplomatic headway in resolving the crisis, it remains to be seen whether sanctions, coordinated divestments or other punitive measures against Myanmar could be contemplated by the regional bloc. Most observers, however, don’t see Southeast Asian nations going down such a path.

“I doubt very much that punishing Myanmar is seen as a useful option within ASEAN,” said Maitrii Aung-Thwin, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore. “The grouping is much more concerned with keeping Myanmar authorities talking through its already well-established diplomatic channels.”

Former Singapore senior diplomat Bilahari Kausikan last year publicly stated that ASEAN membership should not be treated as a given, in reference to how Cambodia and Laos’ close ties to China could risk undermining the bloc’s collective interests if either of the two countries were to act as proxies for a foreign power.

While ASEAN’s Charter enshrines non-interference and does not contain provisions on expelling member states, the aspirational document also calls for its signatories to promote and protect human rights while committing to peace and good governance, which Myanmar in present circumstances is plainly not abiding by.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (C on screen) addresses counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries in a live video conference during on September 9, 2020. Photo by Nhac Nguyen/AFP

“It is highly unlikely that ASEAN would expel Myanmar over its actions, even if the military regime [continues to use] violence against protesters,” Marston told Asia Times. “More likely certain members will continue to express grave concern and call for peaceful resolution of the dispute, but the norm of non-interference will carry the day.”

Cook added that if Myanmar were expelled from ASEAN, there would be one less avenue through which to find a peaceful resolution. “ASEAN is a necessary pathway for dialogue. The larger question is how individual member states engage people in Myanmar so their voices are respected and heard and further bloodshed is prevented,” he said.

With no indication that the putsch will be walked back or that Myanmar’s elected officials will be released, ASEAN’s stance toward the junta’s plan to hold new elections will be closely watched by protesters in the streets. None of ASEAN’s member states have explicitly called for the outcome of the November election to be respected.

Some observers believe Myanmar’s generals ultimately intend to replicate Thailand’s post-coup formula for retaining political power. Thai Prime Minister Prayut initially seized power in a 2014 democracy-suspending coup and stayed in office after winning an election in 2019 that critics regarded as flawed.

After taking power, junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing reportedly sent a letter to Prayut asking for his help to support democracy. The kingdom maintains close ties with Myanmar’s military brass and hosted the first post-coup talks with representatives of the Tatmadaw. Bangkok has said vaguely that ASEAN nations should take a “collective stand” on the crisis.

Though the military junta has yet to provide any meaningful evidence that last November’s vote was fraudulent, an independent ASEAN-backed commission to investigate claims of voting irregularities – a suggestion proposed this week by Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein – could give Myanmar’s generals a face-saving offramp should it conclude that its brazen power grab amounts to a grave miscalculation.

APHR chairman Santiago said in a recent statement that protesters’ rejection of any new polls should be respected and that the bloc’s failure to use its leverage with Myanmar’s military risks further damaging its standing as a credible regional organization. He warned that the ruling junta, if enabled by ASEAN, would manipulate election processes to guarantee its own victory.

“It’s abundantly clear that any election held under the military junta in Myanmar cannot be considered even remotely close to being free or fair,” said Santiago. “ASEAN must…establish a response that secures long-term democratic and human rights gains in Myanmar and that means absolutely rejecting the junta’s calls for fresh elections.”