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Can ASEAN Step Up to the Tatmadaw?

03 May 2021
By Professor James Chin
Hand holding Fabric Flags of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Source: BeanRibbon/Shutterstock.

ASEAN can only play the role of interlocker between the big powers and Myanmar. It will not push Myanmar into the corner or issue ultimatums.

On 24 April, key leaders of ASEAN met the Myanmar junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in Jakarta, headquarters of the ASEAN secretariat. Among the ASEAN leaders who showed up were Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính of Vietnam, Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin of Malaysia, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, and of course the host, President Jokowi of Indonesia.

There was only one item on the agenda: how to stop the crisis, especially the killings, in Myanmar. The meeting was unprecedented for ASEAN, given its reputation for non-interference in the domestic affairs of the ten member-states.

In line with the “ASEAN Way” of consensus, the final agreement from the meeting was not wholly unexpected. Rather than an agreement that was detailed and enforceable, the “agreement” was more an understanding. According to the ASEAN leaders, the senior general “agreed” to a five-point consensus: first, immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar; second, dialogue among all parties concerned; third, a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair shall facilitate the dialogue process; fourth, ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance; and fifth, a special ASEAN envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar soon.

On the surface, it was a major breakthrough given that the Tatmadaw had refused to meet representatives of all foreign countries since the crisis in February. In fact, the military had escalated its campaign of violence against peaceful protestors in the face of increasing opposition from the international community. It is estimated at least 550 people have been killed by the military since the coup. Since the Jakarta meeting, more than a dozen protestors have been killed.

While many NGOs and human rights groups were unhappy that representatives of Aung San Suu Kyi were absent from the meeting, most Western governments were unhappy that ASEAN managed to get the junta to engage with the outside world, but they are hopeful that ASEAN can at least halt the killings. The West knows that that once the killings stop, then negotiations can begin on how to restore political stability. Nothing will happen until the killings stop. ASEAN supporters are arguing that the ASEAN Way worked while nothing else did. Part of the ASEAN Way requires patience, something the West is uncustomed to.

Too early to celebrate

On the whole, it is too early to celebrate. There are many reasons for this pessimistic assessment, but I will confine them to four big items. First, the success, or failure, of the ASEAN special envoy depends entirely on the Tatmadaw. The special envoy has no powers, not even to set the timing of the visit. Their ability to get things done depends entirely on the powers of persuasion and prestige of ASEAN. On this point, the obvious choice for the role would have to be a retired head of government. Anybody below that level will probably not get anything significant done at all.

The latest talk in ASEAN circles is that the special envoy should be someone like the former premier of Singapore, Goh Chok Tong, former Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda, and retired Thai general, former commander of the UN peacekeeping forces in East Timor, General Boonsrang Niumpradit. Singapore and Thailand have extensive links with the Tatmandaw. Singapore is known as their favourite destination for foreign bank accounts and a place for their children to study. Many of the most senior generals also go to Singapore for medical treatment.

Second, it is extremely unlikely that the Tatmadaw will stop the killings immediately and start the process of negotiating with Suu Kyi. The main aim of the coup was to get rid of Suu Kyi, so if the world thinks they will allow her to come back into the same pre-coup position, they had better think again. The best ASEAN can deliver is her physical freedom and perhaps a backroom political role. There is in fact, every chance, that the junta will insists that she leaves the country permanently.

Third is the elephant in the room, China. China has largely been silent throughout the crisis, other than the usual pronouncements on the need to restore peace. The reality is that China, which shares a border with Myanmar, is a major player. The Tatmadaw is relying on China for indirect support right now since they know they are completely ostracised by the West. If there is anyone who can provide the incentives and perhaps guarantee the military immunity from the international community in the future, it is China.  China can easily prop up the military and the Myanmar economy, if it wants to. China can easily increase cross-border trade to offset any trade sanctions or disruption to any international trade.

We know that China wants to use the Myanmar ports as a shortcut for trade and bypass the Straits of Malacca. Strategically, Myanmar is also needed for China’s wish to “surround” rival India on both sides (the other side being Pakistan). Almost all the new economic development along Myanmar’s borderlands with China is due to Chinese money and investors. The Chinese are just waiting for an opportunity to move further south.

The biggest reason to hold off on celebrating, as stated earlier, is that the agreement was, at most, an understanding. This means that the Myanmar junta can modify it at any time and even ditch it at a later date with little or no political costs. Given the junta’s track record in recent years, it is certain that it will under-deliver on the five-point consensus.

Qua Vadis ASEAN?

ASEAN has taken the first serious step in breaking from its decades-long policy of non-interference. Of course, ASEAN will not admit to this, but actions speak louder than words.  Australia and the West should support the subtle changes in the ASEAN Way, but at the same time should be realistic about what ASEAN can achieve. The ASEAN Way requires a lot of patience and time.

In my humble opinion, ASEAN cannot go further than what it did on last Saturday. At the end of the day, what happens in Myanmar will be decided by the gun and the bigger powers. That is realpolitik.

James Chin is professor of Asian Studies, University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow, Jeffrey Cheah Institute, Malaysia. He is also a council member of AIIA Tasmania Branch.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.