The ASEAN Way and the Myanmar Coup

Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Aryan Tulsyan*

Myanmar has a long and complicated relationship with the ASEAN. It could be traced back to 1967, when the organisation first came to existence, and Myanmar had received the offer to join the organisation, but U Ne Win rejected this offer, in fear of losing its neutrality. However, Myanmar bid farewell to neutrality as it bid farewell to the non-aligned movement, and joined ASEAN in 1997, with growing Chinese influence being cited as the primary reason. The opposition to Myanmar’s membership of ASEAN by Thailand and Philippines was rejected, as it was deemed to be a deviation from the ‘ASEAN Way’. ASEAN has followed a policy of constructive engagement with respect to Myanmar, which is a two-pronged process, (i) socialisation of Myanmar’s elite towards good governance and gradual liberal reform and (ii) financial investment into the country. In 2004-2005, the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) was created as a network of national parliamentary caucuses, to promote liberal-interventionist policies towards Myanmar. The AIPMC has been a key driver behind the ASEAN making Myanmar forfeit its chairmanship of the Association in 2005, and its calls for suspension of the nation from the Association, and demanding that the nation be subject to UNSC intervention has played a major part in the democratization of the nation. ASEAN has accredited itself for the release of the Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995; when Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohammed warned that Myanmar could face expulsion from the ASEAN if Suu Kyi isn’t released, which was not viable since the ASEAN Way prohibits the use of sanctions to get results. The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) has played an important role in giving access to regional and international markets, and connecting it to a global supply chain, to a low-income country like, and ASEAN member states have granted preferential tariffs to Myanmar. The ASEAN nations have also supported Myanmar at the International Labour Organisation, by not supporting the resolution passed against Myanmar condemning the country’s forced labour records. Therefore, the ASEAN has played a key role in shaping the policies of Myanmar.

The ASEAN Way is a method of interaction between the ASEAN member nations, as a means to alleviate tensions between them, involving the use of tools like ‘informal dialogue’, ‘extensive consultation’ and ‘consensus building’, in order to develop intramural security. The ASEAN Way propagates the use of three principles by its member states, viz, restraint, respect, and responsibility. Another approach to the ASEAN Way is the concept of ‘flexible consensus’, that does not require unanimity between the ASEAN states, as long as there is no damage caused to the interests of all the member states. The ASEAN Way is also known as the “Hands-off Policy”, and is reinforced by a decision-making process that is based on “consultation and consensus” and a focus on the peaceful resolution of inter-state disputes, but remains silent on resolving intra-state conflicts of ASEAN member states. Myanmar’s State Peace and Development Council had reacted with considerable hostility to the advocacy of flexible engagement. The financial aspect of the ASEAN Way has targeted to reduce the development gap between the ASEAN 6 (Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand) and the CLMV [Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam]. ASEAN has been following a policy of ‘constructive engagement’ towards Myanmar since 1991, in order to adapt a non-confrontational strategy to ‘Aseanize’ the nation. Aung San Suu Kyi had commented that ‘constructive engagement’ was flawed as it concentrated on economic prospects at the expense of political change, and the practice of closed-door negotiations among ASEAN States has become difficult in the case of Myanmar which has attracted international attention and requires action by the ASEAN.

Furthermore, it can be argued that the ASEAN had violated this principle of non-intervention in Myanmar in 1997, when it had asked the junta to open dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, as a consideration for being allowed into the ASEAN. Another example of the breach of the ASEAN Way by its member states in Myanmar is the Malaysian and Indonesian protests against Myanmar’s expulsion of the Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh. The Myanmar government, during the 2014 ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting, asked the ASEAN to refrain from discussions on ‘Myanmar’s ethnic issues’, when the Rohingya issue was brought up. ASEAN created an ad hoc task force to monitor the repatriation of the Rohingyas, and drafted a report titled ‘Preliminary Needs Assessment for Repatriation in Rakhine State, Myanmar’, which had several concerns, including the failure to consult the Rohingya refugees. The task force and the report focused more on the repatriation than the safety of the refugees, and the ‘harmful non-interference mantra’ of the ASEAN is to blame.

The reason why the ASEAN Way has failed to bear fruit in Myanmar is that conflict avoidance usually presupposes evolutionary peaceful change, and as no change could be foreseen, there was not much the ASEAN could do. Therefore, in the case of Myanmar, informal consultation work against cumulative gains due to the lack of enforcement mechanisms. Furthermore, the ASEAN Way is criticised as being time-consuming, with reference to the delays and discrepancies caused in the implementation of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. It might be argued that the ASEAN Way and the policy of constructive engagement has been successful citing the example of Cyclone Nargis, where the ASEAN acted as a conduit for international aid by providing emergency relief assistance through the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response, but the policy does not prove to be efficient when it comes to influencing political change in the country. Furthermore, the ASEAN way has engaged in a troika mission in Cambodia, and this policy is different from the policy of constructive engagement in Myanmar, which has led to allegations of double standards in the ASEAN Way[1].

*Aryan Tulsyan is a Law Student at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India.

[1] Haacke, J. (1999). The concept of flexible engagement and the practice of enhanced interaction: Intramural challenges to the ‘ASEAN way’. The Pacific Review, 12(4), 581–611.

Harsh Mahaseth
Harsh Mahaseth
Harsh Mahaseth is an Assistant Professor and Assistant Dean (Academic Affairs) at Jindal Global Law School, and the Assistant Director of the Nehginpao Kipgen Center for Southeast Asian Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, India.