From ASEAN, the Burmese junta still has nothing to fear
After months of doing little to respond to the February 1 coup in Myanmar, as well as the Burmese military’s subsequent crackdown on civil society and the killing of opponents, and its overall mismanagement of the country, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations finally took a step towards a more resolute response at the end of October, when it unsinvited Burmese junta leader Min Aung Hlaing from his annual summit as well as from the summit. from East Asia immediately after. He was also not invited to a meeting between ASEAN and European states at the end of November.
During the ASEAN summit, several Southeast Asian leaders also criticized the junta. According to Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, told other ASEAN leaders that despite the organization’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of members , he was “obliged to defend other principles … such as democracy, good governance, respect for human rights and constitutional government.”
The October summit developments were made possible in part by the ASEAN Presidency, which rotates between the 10 member countries each year and has considerable powers to set the agenda and choose special envoys for situations crisis like Myanmar, in addition to hosting important meetings. The president of ASEAN in 2021 was Brunei, who, despite being an authoritarian absolute monarchy, was willing to work with more democratic Southeast Asian states that wanted to keep Myanmar out of the summit. To be clear, the ruling Sultan of Brunei did not appear delighted with Myanmar’s isolation, announcing at the October summit that Myanmar was still “an integral part of the ASEAN family”. Nevertheless, the small state agreed to de-invite Min Aung Hlaing.
At the end of the summit, however, the ASEAN presidency was transferred to Cambodia for the next 12 months. Led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia is a larger and more ambitious authoritarian state than Brunei. Hun Sen offered moderate criticism of the junta at the summit, but he himself is one of the oldest autocrats in the world. Additionally, some of Cambodia’s closest regional partners would also prefer to ignore junta abuses and renormalize ties with Myanmar, even as Myanmar’s military launches a scorched earth offensive and the country tumbles to a Failed state.
Cambodia is far from the only obstacle to a more muscular response from ASEAN. After all, until October, ASEAN was lukewarm in its criticism of Myanmar, despite the junta’s mismanagement of the country boosting refugee flows and potentially spreading COVID to neighboring states. The junta has also ignored ASEAN’s 5-point plan to resolve the crisis and has repeatedly snubbed the special envoy the organization has appointed to deal with it.
Moreover, ASEAN’s decision to unsubscribe Min Aung Hlaing from the annual summit only came after intense international pressure on the bloc. Before the invitation was withdrawn, Min Aung Hlaing had rubbed shoulders with senior officials from Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Indonesia. Indeed, just weeks after his alleged ostracism from the October summit, the junta leader held meetings with Thailand’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, as well as with senior Chinese officials.
Now, with Cambodia in the presidency, ASEAN’s already watered-down approach to Myanmar will likely be further diluted in 2022. On the one hand, as CSIS’s Charles Dunst notes, Cambodia already has a reputation within ASEAN to block initiatives that many members support, such as a common position on the South China Sea. Hun Sen’s history of intransigence suggests that he will not be swayed by more democratic ASEAN states that want to act against Myanmar.
With Cambodia in the rotating presidency, ASEAN’s already watered-down approach to Myanmar will likely be further diluted in 2022.
Nor does Hun Sen want to facilitate a long period of isolation for an authoritarian leader in Southeast Asia, at a time when he himself represses Cambodian political opposition and civil society more harshly than at any time. another time in recent decades. And since ASEAN operates by consensus, the Cambodian leader will be able to block any Myanmar policy proposal in 2022.
In recent years, Cambodia has evolved from an autocratic state that still maintained a vibrant, albeit vulnerable, civil society, a press, and an opposition political movement, to a full autocracy. In the last national elections in 2018, the main opposition party was dissolved before the vote, and Hun Sen’s longtime Cambodian People’s Party won all parliamentary seats. In the previous elections in 2013, before Hun Sen’s global crackdown, the opposition nearly defeated the CPP.
It’s no surprise, then, that Hun Sen wants to ensure that regional criticism of authoritarian rulers does not become mainstream, and even more so now, as he presides over a potentially heavy and autocratic period of succession in Cambodia. As David Hutt, a longtime Cambodia observer, notes, Hun Sen appears to be taking a series of steps to ensure his son, Hun Manet, succeeds him as prime minister, while also placing other members of the family to high political positions, although some other top Cambodian politicians seem to oppose a dynastic transition.
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s biggest patrons, China and Vietnam, support this gentler approach to Myanmar. The same is true of Thailand, which shares a long border with Myanmar, has close ties to the Burmese military and is itself led by a former coup leader and friend of Min Aung Hlaing, the Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Prayuth’s quasi-civilian government was formed after five years of military rule following a coup in 2014. In fact, as the October summit approached, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos would have always wanted to invite Min Aung Hlaing and only reluctantly accepted this occasional snub.
Even China, which has little reason to be thrilled with the coup, will not openly censor Myanmar. He maintained his public silence even as Myanmar’s economy collapsed and anti-junta resistance groups escalated their battle against the military in a growing civil war, and despite attacks on Chinese companies in the country. Beijing would likely prefer a return to the pre-coup arrangement of the National Civil League for Democracy sharing power with the Burmese military, which had been a boon for Myanmar-China relations and for investment. Chinese in the country. Nonetheless, Beijing will not support any harsher approach towards Naypyidaw, and it certainly does not want to lose its influence in Myanmar to the benefit of Russia, which has embraced the coup government, going so far as to welcome Min Aung Hlaing to Moscow. and sell arms to the junta. .
All of these factors suggest that Cambodia will further weaken ASEAN’s already lukewarm stance on Myanmar, even if pressure from democratic powers like the United States and the European Union, which are distracted by the global pandemic and their own challenges. national, is unlikely to materialize. Indeed, Cambodia already seems to be pushing for a relaxation of the bloc’s approach. In early November, Kao Kim Hourn, Cambodian Deputy Minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office for Foreign Affairs and ASEAN, told a webinar that ASEAN must engage “constructively” with Myanmar . âWe need dialogue at this critical time,â he said, to âkeep the doors open and engageâ.
Within the bloc, the word “engagement” often means strengthening ties or resuming normal ties with a country. And it should be noted that Kao Kim Hourn made no mention of the fact that the Burmese junta first took steps to implement the five-point plan that the organization had drawn up to restore peace and democracy. in Myanmar before ASEAN got involved.
It seems likely that in 2022 the junta could face serious threats from armed ethnic organizations inside Myanmar, increasingly powerful and effective guerrilla groups known as the Forces de. defense of the people of Myanmar and the parallel government in exile of Myanmar. But he won’t have to worry much about ASEAN.
Joshua Kurlantzick is Senior Research Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.