Myanmar’s Political Crisis: The Limits of ASEAN’s Non-Interference Principle

Even as the news of the coup d’état in Myanmar began to appear in media and news portals around the globe, a sense of déjà vu crept in. Another massive electoral victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) had been concluded just a few months earlier, on 8 November 2020, even as the pandemic was in its second wave in the country. In an earlier article for this website on the crisis Myanmar was facing prior to the November elections, I had concluded by stating that the November 2020 elections would ensure continuity of the electoral process, but left the question open as to whether it would be free and fair. Interestingly the arguments at that point refer to the entire manner in which the opposition parties led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), had pushed for a postponement of the electoral process. The main challenge by the USDP, at that point in time, was the relentless attack on the government and how it had conducted the affairs of the state in response to the COVID 19 pandemic.

The calls for the postponement of the elections did not materialize as the Constitutional provisions for the same are not in place. The elections resulted in an overwhelming majority for the National League for Democracy (NLD) reaffirming the critical transition phase Myanmar had gone through since 2015 when the NLD first came to power within Myanmar, after its last abortive victory in 1990.

In the run up to the 2020 elections the question of whether the elections would be `free and fair’ related to how the USDP as the lead opposition was trying to manipulate the environment created by the pandemic to ensure tighter regulations and control over the public space, which has been one of the ways in which countries with authoritarian or semi-authoritarian political structures have responded. In the case of Myanmar the political arrangement where the military and the civilian rule were basically accommodating one another over the past five years, witnessed a credible slide back as the pandemic revealed the underlying faultiness between the two groups, creating concerns about the outcome of the 2020 elections. Having been unsuccessful in ensuring a postponement, the coup d’état ensured the only outcome that the tatmadaw would have wanted, pushing out the elected leadership through military means and once again detaining SuuKyi, sending the country politically backwards by more than a decade. As in the past, the military regime has quickly adopted a new name, which is now called the State Administration Council (SAC), an avatarof the earlier SLORC, SPDC, USDA which were all cloaked in the same notionsregarding the indispensability of the tatmadawto the survival of the state.

However, even as Myanmar enters into the fourth week of the political protests demanding the recognition of the electoral process and the release of its leadership, there is a sense that, perhaps, thistime, the senior military leadership of General Min Aung Hliangmay not have made the precise calculations on the ground realities. While there is no surprise factor in how the military has responded, with a series of warnings and dire threats to the protestors, even indicating that there would be a greater loss of life, the resistance on ground seems palpably different. The element of grit is clearly visible as one sees the reports coming in on the protests where it seems to be gaining regular traction, particularly in the aftermath of the killings that have taken place in Nay Pyi Taw and Mandalay.

The international responses have been interesting. The coup d’état has probably become the first litmus test for the Biden administration in the United States, which predictably pushed the line on sanctions. This is a move that other Western countries have also followed suit, some even going to the extent of publicly stating that no engagement will be carried on with the military. However, even as this is the most touted Western position likely to emerge under the given circumstances, this will not hold much traction with the Myanmar military. On the contrary this will push the military closer into the arms of the China’s stranglehold embrace, limiting the options for any political maneuvering. The steps that have been taken since the reforms started clearly began to see some diversification in Myanmar’s engagement with the global community, which is likely to be held hostage by the current events.

Closer home to Myanmar, this is a critical litmus test for the ASEAN. The limits of ASEAN’s policy of non-interference in internal matters will be truly weathered by the political events that have unfolded in Myanmar. How ASEAN handles the crisis will be complex because of two factors: first in recent times, two ASEAN member states have witnessed political protests - Thailand and Myanmar. ASEAN’s role in influencing the events unfolding in Thailand has been minimal. Second in the case of Myanmar, the UNSC has urged ASEAN mediation, where the limits of its erstwhile `constructive engagement’ and `flexible engagement’policies will need to be re-evaluated, as these no longer serves the dynamics that prevail on ground.

While Indonesiahas been involved in trying to outline a backdoor diplomatic channel to address and engage the military, it will have a hard task ahead of it. On the one hand Indonesia as the largest regional democracy has been a foremost example of the democratic transition process and has fostered initiatives like the Bali Democracy Forum and promoted the importance of democracy and human rights in the ASEAN charter. However, its ability to influence other ASEAN states on these principles remains low.

The Indonesian Foreign Minister RetnoMarsudi’s visits across the region has sent unclear signals, as it seeks to keep the military to its promise of holding fresh elections, even while ignoring the reality of the recently concluded electoral results. This would be a slippery slope for the ASEAN to support. At the same time ASEAN will shy away from considering a suspension of Myanmar from its membership, because that will go against its non-interference policy. Even as ASEAN’s position has been under strain in recent times over regional dynamics, this will be a test case of ASEAN’s ability to critically shift its reticence on handling internal affairs and leverage a position for itself within its neighbourhood.

Professor Shankari Sundararaman is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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