On 24 April 2021, representatives of the ASEAN member states gathered in Jakarta to attend the Leaders’ Meeting on the situation in Myanmar, where the threat of conflict escalation looms large. Having been pressured by the international community to solve this issue, the Southeast Asian countries have agreed to adopt the Five-Point Consensus as an attachment to its usual Chairman’s Statement. In summary, the Consensus contains the following provisions: cessation of violence, constructive dialogue, the establishment of a special envoy, humanitarian assistance, and meetings with all conflicting parties.
However, a few days after the Consensus was adopted, hostilities erupted between the military junta in Naypyidaw against armed rebels across the country, including in the second-largest city of Mandalay. This failure to honor the Consensus, at a glance, bears resemblance to the failure of President Woodrow Wilson to implement the Fourteen Points as the key principles to end the First World War and achieve “peace without victory”.
Strict Idealism without Moderation: A Missed Opportunity
The drafting of the Five-Point Consensus, as it was an ASEAN internal issue, does not involve any known great powers of the world, whether it would be other regional organizations such as the European Union, or states such as the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting in Jakarta (not even a summit by the standards of the current chairman), ceteris paribus, would only involve ASEAN member states in its implementation, from senior officials to the head of governments. This arrangement is replaced when the “ASEAN Plus” format was utilized, as the decision-making process would involve Dialogue Partners from senior official meetings up to the head of governments, and currently, the European Union and three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are already in this list.
By keeping the Myanmar issue internal regional affairs, and recognizing the military junta as the sole representative of Myanmar, ASEAN stays affirm of their commitment to the “ASEAN Way“, which prioritizes non-interference, quiet diplomacy, non-use of force, and consensus decision-making. Surely, involving western ASEAN Dialogue Partners such as the United States and the European Union in the negotiating table would give them bad public relations if they accommodate the military junta as much as what ASEAN did recently. But the urgency that exists in the current situation does not lie in the short-term agreement; it was the neglect of agreement and peace process that would impact the Southeast Asian region in the long term. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, head of the military junta, repudiated his commitment to the Consensus only four days after the agreement was adopted due to his prioritization of “stabilizing the country.” This act of agreement violation dealt heavy blows to ASEAN credibility, as other forms of cooperation are beginning to take place in the Indo-Pacific.
Drawing lines from the Great War era, this outright humiliation from the military junta is similar to the responses that the French and the British Empire gave to President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points proposal to the joint session of the US Congress. As described by Andrew Preston, Georges Clémenceau mocks Wilson’s proposal by comparing the Fourteen Points to the Ten Commandments and draws similarity between Woodrow Wilson with Jesus Christ, as Clémenceau believes that the Fourteen Points does not reflect the reality in which the world’s state of affairs is revolving. David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is a more moderate person to the Fourteen Points, and that although he sympathizes with the provisions, he believes that most of them do not suit the overall British national interest, as described by George Herring.
If only Wilson consults his fellow Allied great powers on the provisions within the Fourteen Points before his public declaration, his image would not be as bad (naivete) as it is in the Paris Peace Conference, the Fourteen Points would not be ignored by France and the UK, and the Fourteen Points would have the full backing from the rest of the Allied. Back to the present day, if only ASEAN includes Dialogue Partners that possess the might of the great powers in the drafting process, which have a lot more leverage to influence the military junta, then the Consensus would have been much more respected by Naypyidaw.
An example of this practice is the JCPOA (the Iran Nuclear Deal), which Tehran sees as satisfactory and seeks to revive the agreements made with the five great powers. Although ASEAN would have to sacrifice a few of its “ASEAN Way” principles, the military junta would be much more in compliance with the Consensus, and hopefully, prevent more bloodshed.
The Classic Conundrum of “National Interest”
The reluctance to invite great powers in working together to solve the Myanmar issue also shows the lack of united voices in ASEAN member states, as all nations involved had the different political will to show how much they are willing to go to solve the Myanmar issue. As shown in the Chairman Statement, the member states of ASEAN have heard the calls for the release of political prisoners, both locals, and foreigners. However, in the Consensus, no mention of political prisoners or their freedom is being written. It means that there has been an open hearing among member states representatives in the Leaders’ Meeting that calls for the release of the political prisoners, but due to the need for consensus as stipulated in Article 20 of the ASEAN Charter, the Consensus did not contain the provision that calls for the freedom of the political prisoners.
Although it was certain that the military junta vetoed any articles of political prisoners, it should be noted that other member states have a high probability that they would prefer stability in Myanmar rather than the enforcement of justice due to national interest. For instance, Singapore is the country that provides the largest foreign direct investment into the country, and it would be problematic for Singapore to balance its moral obligation and economic national interest.
This same situation is also faced by Woodrow Wilson when he comes back to the United States, where he needs to convince the US Congress to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Although his Fourteen Points has been thrashed by the self-interests of other victors, one particular provision survived: the creation of the League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson believes that it was the moral obligation of the United States to support the international community in their endeavor to seek perpetual peace by eradicating the destructive balance-of-power international system and replacing it with a collective security international system, as described by Henry Kissinger. Moreover, Wilson believed that it was a religious duty for the United States to contribute towards world peace and collaborate with nations of the world.
However, his grandeur ambitions faced a hard reality when Congress reminded him of the stake of the US national interest. As described by David Milne, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge calls the US Congress to denounce the ratification due to the danger that the League of Nations posed towards the Monroe Doctrine, as it would impede the US freedom of actions and called for reserved ratification of the Versailles Treaty. Wilson, overclouded by his moral virtues, rejects moderation and fights the Republican Party. And the epilogue did end in a bitter end: The United States never joined the League of Nations, while the French and British monopolized the League to suit their colonial interests.
It does not mean that national interest is bad, as each nation has the right to achieve economic prosperity. But, this economic prosperity should have taken notice of the condition surrounding it, so that a blind drive towards self-interest that creates calamity in the long-term be avoided. Had Wilson compromised with Congress, there may not be a Second World War. Had ASEAN pushed a tougher stance towards the military junta, more deaths could have been prevented.
Currently, ASEAN has not yet suggested a change of course in its dealings with the Myanmar issue. As mentioned above, the situation would proceed badly for the Southeast Asian region, as there were no great powers involved in the agreement and the lack of moral obligations. Sure, ASEAN member states could gamble that the situation would de-escalate on itself, and the military junta would somehow agree to re-follow the Consensus. However, it would be expedient if ASEAN does something that they could to prevent a future catastrophe, rather than act harshly when the catastrophe finally came into being. But still, one question remains: Could ASEAN escape the perilous fate of the League of Nations?