On the 24th of April 2021, heads of state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) convened in Jakarta, Indonesia to address the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. Since the military coup there in February, the junta has latched on to power through violent crackdowns on civilians. The military have slain many protesters and imprisoned others on spurious charges. The internet is continually blocked by the junta to weaken communication among opposition groups. 

A five-point consensus was brokered in the emergency meeting that the Myanmar junta had attended. The agreements include: an immediate cessation to the violence, a commitment to ‘constructive dialogue’ as a means of resolving conflict, the appointment of a special envoy by Brunei (chair of the Asean council) that would mediate between parties, the provision of humanitarian assistance by Asean countries, and lastly that the envoy will visit Myanmar to meet stakeholders.

On the brink of catastrophe

 Notably absent from the meeting was a representative from the National Unity Government (NUG) that was formed in opposition to the junta and which  claims to be the legitimate government in Myanmar. The NUG is composed of officials elected in 2020, representatives of Myanmar’s various ethnic groups, and various civil society organizations. The NUG’s demands include the restoration of the democratically elected leaders and the removal of soldiers from public places, among others. An NUG spokesperson declared that the opposition would not be placated unless these basic demands are met. 

Commentators warn that the country is teetering on the brink of civil war, and could become a failed state if the situation persists.

Insufficient promises 

While the attendance of member states in the summit is laudable, the five-point consensus falls short of achieving meaningful change. The agreement lacks a concrete timeline and a measurable goal. Successful conflict resolution requires a roadmap where specific targets for measuring progress are met. In contrast, the consensus was couched in neutral language calling for the immediate cessation of violence by all groups. The agreement to appoint a mediator contained no details in terms of what political issues fell under that mediator’s ambit. That vagueness is a political advantage for the junta which can hold onto power by making tokenistic concessions. 

The consensus also gave tacit legitimacy to the Tatmadaw. Before the meeting, leaders from the NUG insisted on taking part in the deliberations. They were not allowed to participate. In contrast, the military’s leader General Min Aung Hlaing was present and signed all resolutions. His participation as Myanmar’s state representative to the exclusion of the NUG confers legitimacy on the military that is already whitewashed by the call to end violence on “all sides,” even if soldiers have been documented to be connected to an overwhelming majority of atrocities. 

There was also no commitment to remedy direct transgressions by the military. Notably absent was any commitment from the Tatmadaw to release political prisoners. No meaningful dialogue can take place when protesters are still held captive and denied legal recourse. 

The hollow consensus was condemned by several opposition groups. For some,it revealed how detached the regional alliance is from the plight of citizens. Many have also taken to social media to express their consternation. 

Regional authoritarianism 

The crackdowns in Myanmar closely resemble that of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Like the Tatmadaw, the Chinese Communist Party then opened fire on young activists protesting against their government. The student led demonstrations started in April of 1989 and were precipitated by grievances due to rising corruption, inflation, and lack of political participation in the Chinese one party system. The violence culminated in June 4 when tanks and armed soldiers were directed to shoot at protesters in the square. 

Until today, the CCP still refuses to acknowledge the massacre as a part of their national history. That period is not taught in schools or mentioned in any textbooks for Chinese progeny to learn. The CCP was condemned after the massacre by individual states including western nations who imposed a trade embargo soon after. But like in Myanmar, condemnation by ASEAN as a regional body was absent. 

What accounts for this inaction? 

The failure of non-interference

Asean’s inaction in the face of human rights crises has plagued the bloc since its inception. This failure can be traced to, among other things, the association’s founding principles, articulated in the Bangkok declaration of 1967. The document stipulated that countries were to “ensure their stability and security from external interference, in any form or manifestation in order to preserve their national identities.” Countries could refuse to take decisive action on the grounds that doing so would interfere in the domestic affairs of a neighbouring state, thus violating this legal statute. 

Asean history explains why its founders needed the non-interference principle. Several governments in Southeast Asia in the 1960s were threatened by armed communist movements, which fought for the independence of their nations against what they saw as continued western colonialism. Asean was conceived as an alternative to the spectre of communism, and the fear that communist parties in power would align the region more closely with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. For the Asean framework to be viable, it needed to champion the rights of countries to self-determination. Asean thus offered a channel for countries to fulfill their national aspirations through means other than armed domestic revolution. Non-interference became the principle through which that aspiration was realized. Through this principle, regional governments co-opted the communist project showing that self-determination could be pursued through multilateral alliances. 

While non-interference drew nations into the regional fold, it  also prevented them from responding to atrocities. In Cambodia, the Asean failed to intervene as the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Polpot committed genocide. More recently, the Asean bloc was condemned by human rights organizations for failing to act decisively on the Rohingyan crisis in Myanmar. Rohingyas as an ethnic group were persecuted by the military and forced to flee the country in makeshift rafts. 

Since the Bangkok declaration of 1967, much has been done to change Asean’s normative understanding of non-interference. In 2008, Asean members signed a charter to strengthen its mandate and move the body closer to a European Union style arrangement. That charter enunciated the principles of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law explicitly.  Yet, the bloc’s structural limitations still prevent intervention even when normative beliefs are changing. First of all, the Asean lacks a supranational peace-keeping force which can be deployed in conflict zones. The association also lacks judicial mechanisms such as regional courts of law which can hold domestic officials accountable when local courts are compromised.

Progress is also thwarted by the paradox that Asean member states with questionable human rights records are asked to scrutinize the actions of their neighbors. The Philippines under the Duterte administration has murdered civilians under the guise of a drug war. Unsurprisingly in 2017, the Philippines voted against a UN resolution condemning the Myanmar government’s violations of the human rights of the Rohingya ethnic minority. That pattern persisted in the current crisis, with foreign minister Teodoro Locsin Jr refusing to call the military takeover a coup. 

Engagement on all fronts 

Understanding the structural limitations of Asean should not lead us to reject regional cooperation as a tool in our collective struggle for democracy. Comparatively speaking, a region where nations are bound by a framework of common norms, no matter how weak, is still more stable than a region with no guiding principle. Asean’s shortcomings should instead underscore the need to supplement regional initiatives with local ones. 

There is no linear way out of the debacle we see in Myanmar today. No one can predict whether the current impasse will be resolved within months, or drag on for years. Given this uncertainty, any hope for stability requires synergy among regional, state, and domestic actors. Organic efforts at resolving the crisis make us cautiously optimistic. Several civil society activists in the region for instance have launched online campaigns to condemn the Myanmar junta under the Milk-Tea alliance. The Twitter campaign launched to condemn Chinese attacks on Taiwanese sovereignty has morphed into a broader movement against autocracy in the region. Activists are also using the internet to organize activities and to offer support for local protesters. 

The actions of civil society, however, must be complemented by international actors who wield influence in global policy making. Western nations such as those in the EU and most importantly the United States must continue to condemn the human rights violations by the junta and the coup which precipitated these acts. But these symbolic gestures must be backed by concrete, material actions. The Tatmadaw receives a lot of revenue from businesses funded by foreign governments or firms. Foreign defense contractors in the United States and Israel have also been documented to have sold arms to the junta. These modern technologies have been used to target and kill civilians. Governments must hold these firms accountable and terminate business deals that empower the military. 

Ultimately, efforts towards peace whether by activists, businesses, governments, or the Asean must be guided by moral rectitude. There must be a recognition that a wrong doing took place. There should be an understanding of who bears responsibility for that wrongdoing. ASEAN’s non-interventionism blurs the truth. In Myanmar, democracy was attacked when the military deposed a legitimately elected government and declared supreme authority without the consent of the governed. In Tiananmen Square, the CCP deprived student activists, and its citizens of their aspirations towards a future of common prosperity. There can be no reconciliation without truth.