ASEAN's Socialization of Myanmar: Perilous Ambivalence, the 2021 Coup and the Way Forward.

AuthorDrajat, Gibran Mahesa

The 23 July 2022 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Myanmar's admission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its admission was preceded by engagement and socialization efforts by ASEAN and its respective member states to curb the repressive nature of the Myanmar military known as the Tatmadaw. Just as Myanmar's membership in ASEAN was about to celebrate its silver jubilee, the February 2021 military coup d'etat and subsequent violent crackdown on protesters by the State Administration Council (SAC) junta presented ASEAN with a crisis on two fronts. The first involves the credibility and relevance of ASEAN as a regional organization that incrementally promotes the principles of democracy, good governance and human rights. (1) The second relates to how internal unrest and political turmoil within an individual ASEAN member state could have a detrimental effect on the preservation of peace and stability in Southeast Asia. Both problems, if not resolved concurrently through the implementation of a well-conceived long-term policy, are likely to undermine ASEAN's claim for centrality in the Indo-Pacific institutional architecture, a concept that denotes the bloc's capacity to utilize its norms and principles to lead regional processes and engagements. (2) The early consensus reached among ASEAN member states to keep Myanmar from falling into the sphere of influence of neighbouring major powers, i.e., China and India, by including them within the ASEAN-led process is also at risk of being compromised. (3)

The 2021 coup in Myanmar should not be viewed as an isolated event. Considering the history of ASEAN-Myanmar relations, the coup was not unforeseeable given ASEAN's inconsistency in thoroughly engaging Myanmar since its admission in 1997. For this reason, it is imperative to link the waves of violence that followed the 2021 coup back to ASEAN's preceding engagement strategies. These strategies supposedly aimed to shift Naypyidaw's rogue behaviour towards becoming an amicable actor that shares the objective of advancing ASEAN as a credible regional actor in the Indo-Pacific.

Throughout the course of ASEAN's efforts to transform Myanmar into a responsible member of its community, the organization has faced two predicaments. On the one hand, ASEAN is constrained by its consensus decision-making and the primacy of state sovereignty. On the other hand, while these constraints may have been an obstacle to the engagement strategies that ASEAN has undertaken vis-a-vis Myanmar, the shortcomings of the approach need to be thoroughly evaluated. This is because ASEAN believed that the behaviour of the rogue Myanmar military government could be changed over time through inclusive and continuous dialogues. This dialogue and socialization process was slowed down when the democratic transition took place in Myanmar, beginning with the 2015 general elections and lasting until the coup in 2021.

Central to the theme of this article is that during Myanmar's democratic transition, ASEAN entered a five-year phase known as "perilous ambivalence". It was ambivalent in the sense that ASEAN's engagement and socialization efforts towards Myanmar, which started from 1997 when Myanmar was admitted into ASEAN until the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 2016 elections, were not properly maintained even as Myanmar was still grappling with its democratization process. The bloc has thus developed an indifferent and reluctant approach when it comes to urging Naypyidaw to forge ahead with political reforms under the NLD administration. The way ASEAN decided to limit its actions towards the Rohingya crisis within a narrow humanitarian scope illustrates the lack of engagement that the organization extended to Naypyidaw. There was, therefore, a mismatch between ASEAN's efforts to ameliorate diplomatic engagement with Naypyidaw and the politics of accommodation vis-a-vis the NLD-led government from 2016 to 2021. The latter came at a time when repressive military policies remained widespread across Myanmar. This attitude has negative ramifications for the two-front crisis that was triggered by the 2021 coup, as well as the ability of ASEAN to claim its central role in the Indo-Pacific security architecture.

The applicability of the "perilous ambivalence" concept to the Myanmar context can be explained by three related factors. First, the concept attempts to shift the focus of the discussion on whether ASEAN has significant leverage over Myanmar's political reforms (4) to whether ASEAN possesses the diplomatic prowess and a consistent multilateral approach to addressing the Myanmar issue. Second, by highlighting ASEAN's efficacy in engaging with its member states through dialogue, the "perilous ambivalence" concept serves as a test to ASEAN's formula of "regional solutions to regional problems". (5) What ASEAN's perilous ambivalence and the ensuing 2021 Myanmar coup have shown is that this formula needs to go beyond formal statements and declarations and be nurtured through continuous intra-ASEAN dialogue processes. Such processes, unfortunately, were largely absent during the NLD administration. Instead of cultivating an environment that would further strengthen intra-ASEAN unity and ASEAN-led discussions on Myanmar, ASEAN opted to accommodate Naypyidaw's internal security policies imposed by the Tatmadaw, with the latter threatening to reposition its foreign relations closer to China. (6) Third, and most importantly, the phase of perilous ambivalence demonstrates how a lack of regional solution to a volatile and pressing regional problem can undermine ASEAN's internal cohesion and its international reputation.

In order to establish the linkage between ASEAN's socialization of Myanmar and the 2021 coup, as well as the implications for ASEAN's position in the overarching context of great power politics, this article is divided into four main sections. The first reviews relevant ASEAN engagement and socialization efforts towards Myanmar during the period of military rule from 1994 to 2015. The year 1994 is selected as a starting point because it was when ASEAN adopted its policy of "constructive engagement" based on Thailand's bilateral policy towards Myanmar, (7) while 2015 was when the NLD emerged as the victor in democratic elections and went on to form a quasi-civilian government. (8) The second section examines human rights issues and the democratization setback Myanmar faced during the NLD administration, focusing on the military stranglehold enshrined in the 2008 Constitution, the Rohingya crisis and how ASEAN responded to these internal challenges. The third section discusses the entanglement that ASEAN found itself in as a consequence of the flaws in implementing its policy of socializing Myanmar into its organizational framework. The fourth and final section offers recommendations on how ASEAN can enhance its plan of action regarding the ongoing political crisis in post-coup Myanmar.

ASEAN's Socialization of Myanmar (1994-2015)

ASEAN's rapprochement with Myanmar, and the inclusive approach that ASEAN took to socialize the military regime, were punctuated by various episodes of turbulence. When ASEAN decided to grant full membership to Myanmar in 1997, the organization's policy of constructive engagement underscored the importance of strengthening diplomatic and economic ties. These ties were expected to gradually alter the behaviour of the military government in the direction of political reform and acceptance of ASEAN's organizational objectives. (9)

That said, ASEAN's approach continuously adapted to the changing attitude of the Myanmar military government towards its multilateral processes. Shortly after the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis, ASEAN member states informally agreed to the idea of "enhanced interaction", which provided more latitude for individual member states to comment on the domestic policies of their counterparts. (10) Enhanced interaction is a watered-down version of a much sturdier approach known as "flexible engagement" first proposed by then Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, whereby ASEAN would play a more proactive role "if domestic events in one member's territory impact adversely on another member's internal affairs, not to mention regional peace and prosperity". (11) More importantly, the idea became a fundamental element of ASEAN's engagement policy towards Myanmar as the latter's military government threatened to undermine ASEAN's image and reputation on the international stage.

The first of these episodes occurred in 2003 when NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her entourage were arrested in Depayin following an attack on her motorcade by a pro-military group. Most ASEAN member states, particularly Indonesia, were increasingly frustrated by the lack of commitment from Myanmar to deal with the fallout of the incident. (12) This was exemplified in 2004 by the Myanmar military government's announcement during the 10th ASEAN Summit that Suu Kyi's house arrest would be extended for another year. (13) As a result, both governmental and non-governmental actors within key ASEAN member states raised the possibility of Myanmar's withdrawal from its impending ASEAN chairmanship in 2006. (14) As a bloc, however, ASEAN was "careful not to publicly call on Myanmar to surrender the chairmanship" and left that decision entirely to the junta. (15) At the 38th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in July 2005, Myanmar officially decided to relinquish its chairmanship in 2006 to focus on its so-called "national reconciliation process". (16) This enhanced interaction approach, which saw individual ASEAN member states and the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus asking Myanmar to relinquish its impending chairmanship role, (17) was further augmented in subsequent years, particularly when a violent crackdown on protesters took place in 2007.

As Myanmar took a back seat from ASEAN's...

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