ASEAN must become political to deal with Myanmar

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has traditionally had a strict policy of political non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. And the association remained true to that principle despite the events of the past five years in member state Myanmar, where the military carried out “clearing operations” against some 1 million civilians belonging to the Rohingya minority. But this will not remain an option for much longer. And the pivot of the transformation will be Myanmar.

Part of what enabled ASEAN to function as normal regarding Myanmar through the Rohingya crisis was that most of the refugees fleeing the country ended up in Bangladesh, which is not a member of the association. But that has not been universally the case. Tens of thousands of Rohingya went south by sea, washing up on the shores of Malaysia, Indonesia and other members of the grouping. Concerns about what is happening in Myanmar had been raised within ASEAN forums by Malaysia and Indonesia, but these efforts were resisted. Now Indonesia is paving the way for a new approach, prompted above all by the recent coup d’etat carried out by the military in Naypyidaw.

Where the US and the EU have outright condemned the coup and demanded a full reversal of the situation, Indonesia took a more delicate and much more promising approach. It called on the military to hold elections later this year, as it promised it would do during the coup, and proposed that the elections be monitored by ASEAN observers.

This is a wise move for a number of reasons. First, the demand goes no further than holding the new military government to its own word. The motivation the military cited for the coup was “electoral irregularities” in the polls last year and its claim was that all it wanted was a “fair” re-run of the election. The presence of ASEAN observers would do much to guarantee a more fair election than one run entirely by the military itself. As such, the move could even fly under the threshold of “political interference” in the internal affairs of Myanmar, either by Indonesia or by ASEAN.

For Indonesia and ASEAN to call for a fair election is in effect for them to call for an NLD government.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Secondly, it gives the military government of Myanmar a way out that does not involve a political concession of having made an error or having done something wrong. This makes it much more likely that it would allow this to happen, as opposed to the explicit demands coming from the West that it should not be in power. This saves face and that is something that will carry a lot of weight for the generals. But, perhaps even more importantly, it may shield military leaders from any legal or constitutional liability for having ordered the coup in the first place. They would thus be allowed to walk away from the path of direct military government in Naypyidaw in a way that means they would not immediately face prison as soon as they yielded power to a civilian government.

Lastly, this move brings the entire weight of the trading bloc to apply pressure on the military government to leave power in a way that may well prove to be the most effective means to that end, all while nominally maintaining the principle of “non-interference.”

Of course, this will in practice be interference: Everyone knows that elections would overwhelmingly return support for parties opposed to the military and its powerbase, primarily the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Aung San Suu Kyi — especially if the elections are allowed to be overseen by ASEAN observers. So for Indonesia and ASEAN to call for a fair election is in effect for them to call for an NLD government; and so ASEAN will have become politicized and a force for democracy in Southeast Asia. And that’s no bad thing.

In time, the institution will likely come to acknowledge this explicitly and even embrace this new political role. It remains to be seen whether this first foray into this area will bear any fruit, but the effort is certainly a noble one and a very well executed one too.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

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