Flags of ASEAN member countries. Photo: AFP / Romeo Gacad

Has the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the first time foregone its longstanding policy of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of one of its ten member states by blocking a representative of Myanmar’s junta from attending the bloc’s upcoming summit in Brunei? And, if so, why?

Is it concern over a February 1 coup and the brutal repression of massive public opposition to the military power grab, which has left more than a thousand dead and many more who have been arrested and tortured?

Or is it simply a face-saving gesture from a regional bloc that has come under increasing criticism for being ineffective and therefore is losing its credibility at a time when global superpowers are playing a rising role in the region’s power politics?

ASEAN is heavily dependent, especially on what may come after the pandemic, on the goodwill of the US and other Western nations that in no uncertain terms have condemned Myanmar’s coup and urged the bloc to do more to restore normalcy in the country.

Myanmar demonstrators have also condemned the bloc for its inactivity and set ASEAN flags alight at public protests in the old capital of Yangon.

To be sure, ASEAN can hardly be described as a gathering of liberal democracies. The bloc’s current chair, Brunei, is an absolute monarchy. Two of its members — Vietnam and Laos — are communist-ruled one-party states.

Cambodia is governed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has recently outlawed the political opposition and in the process made the country into an even harsher autocracy.

Singapore also lacks fundamental freedoms when it comes to the media and civil rights and Malaysia is best described as a semi-democracy. Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, is known for his disdain of the media and all opposition to his rule.

In Thailand, the military has staged several coups to oust elected governments and retains an outsized political role despite 2019 elections. That leaves, ironically given its history of autocratic rule, Indonesia as the most, some would argue the only, democratic ASEAN member.

Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces and head of Myanmar’s coup regime Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attends the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow, Russia on June 23, 2021. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Sefa Karacan

ASEAN’s two cardinal principles, non-interference and consensus, have until now made it impossible for the bloc to take any decisive action when there has been trouble in or between its non-democratic member states. But it is also clear that ASEAN leaders are running out of patience with the Myanmar junta, known as the State Administration Council (SAC).

Its leader and now self-appointed prime minister, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, paid a one-day visit to Jakarta on April 24, where he and his ASEAN partners agreed on what was called “a five-point consensus” comprising calls for an immediate cessation of violence and the exercise of utmost restraint and a dialog among all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis.

It was also decided to appoint a special envoy by the ASEAN chair to “facilitate mediation in the dialogue process” and to provide humanitarian assistance through AHA, the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management.

Even Min Aung Hlaing agreed that the special envoy and his delegation should be given the right to visit Myanmar and there meet with “all parties concerned.”

ASEAN’s decision to prevent junta representatives from participating in the summit, which is scheduled to take place on October 26-28 via videoconference, was explained in a statement issued at the bloc’s foreign ministers’ meeting — also online — on October 15.

While noting “the principles enshrined in the ASEAN charter”, meaning non-interference, the ministers stated that “the situation in Myanmar was having an impact on regional security as well as the unity, credibility and centrality of ASEAN as a rules-based organization.”

ASEAN would, therefore, “invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to the upcoming Summits.” Who that “non-political” individual will be is unclear, nor how and by whom he or she would be appointed.

The junta’s response was that it had cooperated on the five-point consensus by accepting the appointment of Brunei’s Foreign Minister Erywan Pehin Yusof as ASEAN’s special envoy — and that it had distributed aid delivered through AHA “to those in need.” But the envoy was not allowed to meet the deposed and detained president Win Myint and state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi because they are facing criminal charges in Myanmar courts.

In other words, the SAC has closed the door to any dialogue with the ousted leaders and opponents to military rule. The Myanmar foreign ministry also remarked that Myanmar “hopes that he [the ASEAN envoy] will be able to avoid actions from anyone with the intention of putting politically motivated actions and pressures on Myanmar.”

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 by STR / AFP)

SAC has always claimed that it assumed power constitutionally, because the president had decided to hand over power to the generals, which he has the right to do under the country’s 2008 constitution.

According to the SAC, the military-appointed First Vice President Myint Swe, a retired lieutenant-general, had taken over the presidency from Win Myint, who the military body claimed had resigned for health reasons.

But during court testimony on October 12, Win Myint let it be known that he was in good health. According to his lawyer Khin Maung Zaw, the military had tried to force him to relinquish his post hours before the February 1 coup by warning him he could be seriously harmed if he refused.

Win Myint replied that he “would rather die than consent”, the lawyer stated in an English language text message sent to reporters. That undermined any SAC claim of legality, even under the 2008 constitution, which was drafted under the auspices of the military.

ASEAN’s initiative to block Myanmar appears to have been taken by Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah who, on October 6, even said that his country is ready to consider holding dialogue with Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) — consisting of ousted MPs and other opposition figures — if SAC does not fully cooperate with the five-point consensus.

Indonesia’s outspoken Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi went even further in a Twitter message on October 15 that said Myanmar “should not be represented at the political level until Myanmar restores its democracy through an inclusive process.”

But, regional security analysts argue, ASEAN’s annoyance with the SAC’s intransigence and the bad rap the bloc has received because of Myanmar’s membership may not be directed solely by concerns about democracy and human rights.

Malaysia and Indonesia have for years been at the receiving end of a flood of Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. According to UNHCR, at the end of August, there were 179,390 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the international body in Malaysia. 

Of those, 102,990 are Rohingyas, 22,470 Chins (a mainly Christian minority) and 29,390 from other ethnic groups from conflict-affected areas in Myanmar. Although the exact number is unknown, thousands of Rohingya refugees have also ventured in rickety boats to Indonesia.

A wooden boat carrying suspected Rohingya migrants detained in Malaysian territorial waters off the island of Langkawi on April 5. Photo: AFP / Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency

Attempts to have them repatriated have failed; neither Malaysia nor Indonesia is in a position to integrate the high number of people fleeing oppression and persecution in Myanmar.

The February 1 coup has also been bad for intra-ASEAN business. Singapore exported US$2.7 billion worth of goods to Myanmar in 2020, mainly mineral fuels, oil, electronics and machinery. But companies from Singapore and other ASEAN members may now face sanctions and boycotts for dealing with Myanmar.

Trade with Vietnam was also booming before the coup, with Vietnamese companies investing in real estate and a huge new modern shopping mall in Yangon. Mytel, one of Myanmar’s top telecom operators, is a joint venture between the military-controlled Myanmar Economic Corporation and Viettel, which is owned by the Vietnamese military.

Vietnam, hardly a democracy, would not normally have cared about a military takeover in a foreign country, but the Vietnamese can hardly be pleased to see their co-owned communication towers being blown up by anti-junta protestors and other investments being ruined because of the coup.

No serious observer of the post-coup situation in Myanmar believes that the SAC would ever engage in a meaningful dialogue with Win Myint, Aung San Suu Kyi and other ousted — and now detained — leaders.

So ASEAN is stuck with an ostracized member that had dragged its reputation in the mud and there is little it can do about it than what it has done already: wait and see what happens next.

In true ASEAN manner, the foreign ministers’ statement “reiterated that Myanmar is an important member of the ASEAN family” so Myanmar should be given “the space to restore its internal affairs and return to normalcy.”

But not many will be holding their breath on that one. Myanmar is in turmoil, and there is very little ASEAN can do about it apart from symbolic summit snubs.