The intervention dilemma: How ASEAN maintains regional peace

Nearly three months after the Myanmar military coup, where military officials removed and detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected officials, the ruling junta continues its crackdown on anti-coup protests and the suspension of democratic institutions. As of April 28, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based advocacy group, reported that at least 756 people have since been killed by the Burmese military, while 4,501 were arrested.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar, arrived at a three-month overdue consensus to condemn the violence in the country during an emergency summit on April 24. ASEAN’s statement focused on facilitating a “constructive dialogue” between the military and pro-democracy activists. Myanmar’s National Unity Government, consisting of the remains of Suu Kyi’s administration and representatives from armed ethnic groups, welcomed ASEAN’s proposal but stressed that the junta must fulfill its side of the agreement.   

The regional bloc has been under heavy scrutiny by the international community since the crackdown on February 1 after its principle of non-interference led to the failure of ASEAN member-states, the Philippines included, to arrive at an earlier consensus on human rights and safety issues in the Myanmar coup.

Non-interference principle

Founded in 1967, ASEAN is one of the world’s largest regional blocs, having united 10 countries with different governments and economies through shared goals of peace of prosperity. The ASEAN Charter, which contains the organization’s purpose and principles, has served as guidelines for intra-regional cooperation among member-states. Adherence to these norms and principles has led to what is referred to as the “ASEAN Way.”

The non-interference principle is one of the key policies to ASEAN regionalism. As stated in the ASEAN Charter, member-states are to “act in accordance” by not meddling with the internal affairs of other Southeast Asian states. Sherlyn Hernandez, an assistant professor from the International Studies Department, notes, however, that internal affairs in one state may become a regional concern if it threatens another state, with the ASEAN serving as a forum to formulate a diplomatic response.

“Whether a form of non-interference is acceptable or justifiable will depend on whether member states of the organization would all agree and reach a consensus to contravene the said ‘sacred’ principle,” she explains.

But the effectiveness of the principle has been tested a number of times in the past, particularly on addressing recent crises in the region. In 2015, when confronting the Rohingya crisis, some states like Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia extended humanitarian aid to the refugees, Hernandez says. However, the states never reached a formal consensus on the issue.

On the other hand, the Marawi siege in 2017 was more pressing for the nations as it was “a security issue and is transnational in nature,” she explains. “There are existing bilateral and trilateral agreements between states on counterterrorism. However, in terms of implementation of all these agreements, it’s also lacking.”

More recently, ASEAN member states have failed to agree on how to handle the South China Sea dispute, with some opting not to involve themselves entirely. 

“Given that only half of the organization’s member states have direct claims or concerns on the South China Sea disputes, the non-claimant states can easily justify their non-cooperation through the non-interference principle,” she furthers.

Principle against realpolitik

On February 1, the day of the Myanmar coup, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque announced that the Philippines would not comment on the situation as officials considered the incident an “internal matter.” 

In the succeeding days, however, the government began to express “grave concern”, a sentiment other ASEAN countries also began to harbor. Last February 13, the Philippines contradicted these sentiments with an official statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), withdrawing from the Council’s resolution on the human rights implications of the crisis. The resolution called for the immediate release of the coup’s political prisoners and strongly urged the military to refrain from violence. 

The Philippines, China, Russia, Venezuela, and Bolivia chose not to associate themselves with the decision.

“I think the Philippine government is trying to play safe,” elaborates Dr. Gina Lomotan, an assistant professor from the Political Science Department, on the flip-flopping stance. While other ASEAN countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have been more vocal on the issue than the Philippines, there are diplomatic concerns outside Southeast Asia that need to be taken into account. 

“Remember, Myanmar is also close to China, and we are under this present administration [that is] leaning towards China,” Lomotan maintains. In considering a statement on the crisis, there is the “realpolitik of not antagonizing other powers that are close to Myanmar.”

As the Philippine government continues to “play safe” in the issue, Lomotan asserts that the country is doing a disservice to itself. “Certainly, what’s happening in Myanmar does not reflect on their (ASEAN) aspiration for peace and security in the region,” she laments.

Developing an official statement from ASEAN for the peaceful resolution of the Myanmar crisis requires the consensus of the majority of member countries, but their adherence to non-intervention hinders a quick response. “After all, you can’t always expect ASEAN or any organization to have a consensus on an issue right away,” Hernandez notes, considering that the coup happened only weeks before the Philippines’ UNHRC statement. “Most of the time, states will consider their own personal interests first.”

Review of ASEAN’s principles needed

Working around the “sacred” non-intervention principle is possible, Lomotan suggests, by anchoring a constructive engagement on its principles on peace and stability. ASEAN can use diplomatic measures for Myanmar and take a “courageous stance”, especially concerning Myanmar’s citizens and its commitment to the organization’s aspirations of regional harmony. While the most that can be done is to try and convince Myanmar, a strong unified opinion should add to the peaceful resolution of the crisis.

“I think we need to look at the [ASEAN] Charter goals when it was formed to maintain regional peace, security, and stability,” Lomotan says, elaborating that Myanmar’s situation is far from those goals. She further adds that the organization needs to rethink its policy, especially when human rights are affected. 

Both Lomotan and Hernandez argue the need to revisit ASEAN’s founding principles. Hernandez explains that much has changed since the organization’s creation: security issues have changed, while international relations have evolved within and beyond ASEAN. 

Given that Myanmar’s situation can have a ripple effect on other countries, Lomotan also maintains the need for ASEAN to rethink its policies. While she explains that ASEAN will not deviate from the principles it stands for, it needs to be more proactive in light of the recent crisis, which can serve as a “reality check” to the ASEAN community.

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