Asean Splinters Over Myanmar Condemnation

Member nations’ five-point consensus ignored from the start

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which failed to censor Myanmar for its five-month-old violent crackdown on dissent, is now learning that the so-called “five-point consensus” agreed in Jakarta in April by junta leader Min Aung Hlaing would be ignored from the start.

Any hope that Hlaing (above, center) would implement the five points --to end violence, begin constructive talks with the opposition, allow a special Asean envoy into the country, and allow in aid has been dashed by recent events. On his return from the Jakarta summit, Hlaing did everything he could to frustrate the Asean consensus. Although he granted the Asean Secretary General and the Second Foreign Minister of Brunei an audience in early June, he conceded nothing on the ground.

Supported by China, Russia, and India, General Hlaing’s upped the stakes. He raised his political stature and military credentials by defying Asean as he knew the five-point consensus was nothing more than a spiteful joke. He traveled to Jakarta partly to assess the chemistry, to know which friends of his would turn up for the Summit. When Thailand, the Philippines, and Laos only sent their Foreign Minister to Jakarta, Hlaing knew half the battle already won.

Call it deliberate absence or what, to put it mildly in diplomatic terms, it was dissent or silent rebellion. Three months down the road, four Asean member states abstained from supporting the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the coup and calling for an arms embargo. They blamed the resolution on Washington’s attempt to interfere in the domestic politics of Myanmar, hence not worthy of support.

The US and its allies in Europe have been trying to wean Myanmar from China and now Russia.

Frustrated by the antics, Jakarta must be furious, and I do not think it will push for more initiative soon. A Jakarta Post op-ed on 1 July describing the entire conundrum as Asean getting in bed with the enemy says it all. I do not expect Cambodia, the next Chairman of Asean after Brunei, to push for a more vigorous solution in Myanmar. Phnom Penh will not do anything to upset China, a friend of Myanmar.

The dissent in Asean will further weaken the association’s “centrality.” Within Asean diplomatic circles, centrality is defined as the capacity to influence and to steer external issues, usually on security matters, in Asean’s favor. For example, Asean capacity to influence the current dynamics in the US-Sino rivalry in its favor, considered central to Asean unity, is limited. Thus far, Asean has been skirting the issue and is in no position to change the dynamics. Despite official statements, some member states are quietly taking sides. They are doing this ostensibly to protect their national interests. None of the Asean member states has embraced the Quadrilateral Security Initiative formulated by Australia, Japan, US, and India to contain China. While many are US Treaty Allies, all maintain very strong economic relations with China.

To be influential, Asean needs strong institutions with adequate resources. Although in terms of membership Asean comprises 10 member sovereign states, the secretariat, which technically should be the hub of Asean strategic thinking, is weak. It employs only 300 staff members. Compare this to 32,000 staff employed by the European Union, complete with credible research and policy teams.

Asean has an annual budget of US$20 million derived from the member states, a pittance compared EU’s budget. The EU’s budget for 2017 was equivalent to US$151 billion; US$186.1 billion in 2018.

Here lies the crux of the problem. As a regional organization, Asean still has no acute understanding of geopolitics at the global level and power games among the big powers. The power asymmetry and distribution in all regional institutions create a certain power imbalance that, in my view, has made it extremely difficult for Asean to play a pivotal role.

Both the Asia Regional Forum and East Asia Summit Forums, for example, have been used by the contending major powers to preserve and promote their respective security interests. A colleague from Vietnam lamented the big powers are using “our forums to undermine our interests” when “we are in the driver’s seat.” Surely, centrality must be more than being in the drivers’ seat!! This is a classic case of where money and guns do the talking.

The capacity of Asean to influence events and policies is limited by the absence of strategic vision, according to some experts. This may be so, partly due to the limited capacity of the Secretariat to handle very complex issues as demonstrated by the current impasse over Myanmar. More importantly, what ails the Asean capacity to influence events in the region results from divergent national priorities that make it difficult to achieve a unified approach. The absence of unity over major issues aka Myanmar limits its influence.

While the centrality concept is relevant only in the context of Asean external policies; it does impact internal cohesiveness at the ground level. Asean can only break up if the member states no longer see the need to stay together as a regional organization over irreconcilable differences. I do not see any member suing for a divorce proceeding, just yet. While the Brexit formula may not apply to Asean, the Myanmar conundrum resulting from resistance within its own ranks may further undermine Asean solidarity and internal cohesion.

The way forward for Asean is to strengthen its internal cohesion. Having internal resilience is more important than losing sleep over whether Asean can exert influence among the big powers. For some, internal resilience comes with stronger economic cooperation between the member states, with focus on two areas: trade and investments. Intra-Asean trade today hovers around 26 percent of its global share compared to 63 percent in the EU. Intra-Asean investment is 19 percent of foreign direct investment (FDI) flows into Asean in 2018. The equivalent for the EU in 2016 was 60 percent. The UK, France, Germany, and the Netherlands together account for 49 percent of the projects and 54 percent of the value of intra-EU FDI. The challenge to policy planners is to find the correct market tools to improve access to each other’s market.

While Asean’s achievement in forging a credible political- security- community that respects each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is highly commendable, Asean member states cannot continue to turn a blind eye over gross violations of human rights on a wide scale in Myanmar.

B A Hamzah is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He is head of the Center of Defense and International Studies, National Defense University Malaysia. He can be contacted at bahamzah8@hotmail.com