30 years on, Myanmar disaster places Asian-style democracy to check

BANGKOK – The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations met in Jakarta on April 24 to discuss the aftermath of the coup in Myanmar. After the meeting, Brunei gave one Declaration by the chairmanThe heads of state and government had reached a “consensus” on issues such as the immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, the dispatch of the ASEAN chairman’s special envoy and the start of a constructive dialogue between all concerned in order to find a peaceful solution in the interests of the people .

The meeting of heads of state and government was exceptional in every way.

ASEAN has a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other members. This was the first time the group had called a meeting of leaders on an internal issue in a member state. It was also the first to be held in a country other than the Chairman’s. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the block has held online sessions that take place almost 1,000 times a year. This was the first face-to-face ministerial meeting since the Foreign Ministers’ meeting with China in Laos last February.

It was also surprising that Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was present. It is believed that he was present as the head of the State Administrative Council, the official name of the junta that took power after the February 1 coup, rather than as the Colonel General of the Myanmar military. But during the previous military rule, the prime minister attended the summits, not Than Shwe, the then chairman of the state peace and development council. If normal diplomatic protocol had been followed this time, it would have been appropriate for Myanmar to send former Vice President Myint Swe, who was appointed incumbent president by the junta.

The decision to invite Min Aung Hlaing drew the ire of critics, who said the move was to give the junta tacit approval. However, ASEAN called the latest Konfab a “meeting of heads of state and government” rather than a summit, to indicate that, according to diplomatic sources, Min Aung Hlaing is not recognized as the head of state of Myanmar.

Mynmar’s junta head Major General Min Aung Hlaing (left) gestures as he is greeted at Soekarno Hatta International Airport on the outskirts of Jakarta on April 24. © Reuters

The unusual gathering was held to urge Myanmar’s military chief to end the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that has killed more than 750 civilians, according to the Political Prisoners Support Group, an advocacy group. ASEAN came under heavy pressure from the international community during the meeting and the discussions must have been heated, unlike the usual carefully choreographed ASEAN summits.

Following the coup, Indonesia hosted an online meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on March 2. Members appealed to Wunna Maung Lwin, Myanmar’s foreign minister appointed by the junta, to exercise restraint, but the junta’s action escalated instead.

Then Indonesia moved again. On March 19, President Joko Widodo Brunei called on Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah to convene a meeting of heads of state and government, and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong spoke out quickly. The meeting would not have taken place without the support of these three countries.

Indonesia’s activism is believed to have been driven by the situation in Myanmar when the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting was held in March, and this may also have been the case at the most recent meeting. Just before a conference call with Sultan Bolkiah, Jokowi posted a video on YouTube saying he would propose a meeting of heads of state and government in Brunei. The message was that the Indonesian President wanted to play a leading role in solving the Myanmar crisis.

Persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has been a concern of Indonesians, 90% of whom are Muslim. “As a leader with excellent political balance, Jokowi found it beneficial to get involved in Myanmar, given the state of national public opinion and Indonesia’s status as the leader of ASEAN,” said Takashi Shiraishi, Chancellor of Kumamoto Prefectural University.

Malaysia, where Islam is the official religion, and Singapore, which emphasizes multiracial unity and has the greatest economic interest in Myanmar, had similar political interests in containing the unrest in Myanmar.

These three countries were active in Myanmar for 10 years until Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997 and their attitudes towards the country remained unchanged.

Europe and the US have in the past strongly condemned Myanmar’s former junta, which in 1988 house arrest the leader of democracy and later the de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, after smashing demonstrations for democracy. The junta also ignored the Suu Kyi camp’s landslide victory in the 1990 parliamentary elections. But the three ASEAN members defended Myanmar, among others.

The trio was facing its own challenges at the time. They passed “development dictatorships” in which economic growth took precedence over political freedom. And they advocated an “Asian style democracy” in which social stability is more in the foreground than individual freedom. As related governments, they wanted to help Myanmar fend off criticism of censorship and actions against democratic opponents.

However, the three also had “constructive engagement” and urged the junta to free Suu Kyi from her first house arrest in 1995, when talks with Myanmar about ASEAN membership were in their final stages.

This time the three nations sought concessions in Myanmar rather than defending it, probably because of changes in their homeland. Indonesia became democratic in Asia after the financial crisis and Suharto’s authoritarian regime collapsed in 1998. Malaysia saw its first democratic change of government in 2018, while Singapore, which has been led by the ruling People’s Action Party since its independence, has grown in opposition, a political force in recent years.

The leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations will meet on April 24 in the organization’s secretariat building in Jakarta. © Reuters

The shift in attitudes towards the junta in Myanmar reflects the progress made towards democratization in the three countries that have become more sensitive to public opinion.

However, the opposite trend can be observed in Thailand and the Philippines, where only foreign ministers were sent to the last meeting. The Philippines and Thailand, which became democratic in 1986 and 1988, respectively, took a cool stance on Myanmar’s junta at the time. However, both countries are reluctant to take a stand that Myanmar itself is ruled by strong men.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup that brought him to power, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose extrajudicial killings of alleged drug crimes are under pressure in Europe and the US

It looks like the ASEAN leaders’ meeting could win some concessions from Myanmar’s junta, but it remains unclear whether the generals will keep their word. The Singapore Prime Minister said Myanmar had not refused to send a special envoy, but Min Aung Hlaing may have rejected rather than accepted the proposal. It is also unclear when and how the junta will implement the agreement.

If Myanmar doesn’t stop the end of the deal and ASEAN doesn’t do anything about it, trust in ASEAN at home and abroad could decline. In the 1990s, the prospect of ASEAN admission was a negotiating chip the group held to persuade the previous junta to moderate its behavior. Is the group really ready to consider expelling Myanmar this time? The recent extraordinary meeting could shed some light on whether ASEAN is ready to take this momentous step.