OPINION: Did the ASEAN enable the Myanmar situation?

A protester holds onto the shirt of a fallen comrade, during a crackdown by security forces on demonstrations against the military coup, in Hlaing Tharyar township in Yangon on March 14, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP)

By Dr. Ma. Angela Leonor Aguinaldo


The military officials in Myanmar remain unperturbed.  Despite the local demonstrations against the military coup, the pleas from its neighboring countries, as well as the international response and  impending sanctions from countries and regional organizations such as the United States and the European Union for the numerous violations of human rights, the end to the military coup in Myanmar remains out of sight.  Instead, the Myanmar military responds nonchalantly against international condemnation by raising its middle finger and brazenly increases the brutal violence and repression perpetrated against civilians.  In fact, more than 200 fatalities have been reported since the beginning of the military siege.  Even with all that has been said and done by parties that matter, the dire situation in Myanmar shows no signs of being resolved anytime soon.  We could rather expect an increase in more repressive action from military officials and a rise of numbers in terms of casualties and other victims.


It should be self-evident by now that Myanmar military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and his cohorts do not give a damn about what the worldview is and whether it is against what they are presently doing in Myanmar. They have not really cared since 59 years ago, when Myanmar was first placed under military rule.  Even with the numerous condemnations and/or diplomatic calls for parties to settle their differences, this won’t happen anytime soon.  And while I agree that territorial integrity and sovereignty of Myanmar should be respected and national internal efforts towards democratic reforms should be supported, how could countries such as the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, or even Russia and China expect decent negotiations between parties when peaceful demonstrations are met with violence and death? How could democracy be restored and upheld if there is a great disparity in bargaining position between the parties involved? Further, Min Aung Hlaing and his officials believe that they are in the pinnacle of power and authority in Myanmar.  They have the monopoly over what is right for Myanmar and the citizenry are in no position to oppose them.  And that they are untouchable.  Thus, it should be expected that those diplomatic calls would fall on deaf ears.  Any threats from the international community to impose sanctions against the country or the perpetrators of the coup could end up counter-intuitive and do more bad than good to the country and its citizens.

This screengrab provided via AFPTV and taken from a broadcast by Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) in Myanmar on February 3, 2021 shows military chief General Min Aung Hlaing chairing a meeting at the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Naypyidaw following February 1 military coup. (Photo by – / Myanmar Radio and Television / AFP)

With all these unfortunate circumstances occurring in Myanmar, I cannot help but wonder if the ASEAN was partly to blame.  For those who are not aware, this military coup in Myanmar is not an isolated incident.  It has happened before.

For purposes of recall, Myanmar has been under military rule from 1962 to 2011.  Despite having multiparty elections on May 1990 and the National League for Democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership won, the military did not cede its power.  On 23 July 1997 Myanmar was admitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (“ASEAN”).  The decision of the ASEAN was met with criticism.  In fact, the ASEAN clashed with the European Union (“EU”) because the latter and its member states found it so unacceptable that the ASEAN admitted Myanmar despite the ongoing military rule and the reported atrocities being committed.  Thus, EU found it correct to question the ASEAN’s decision and later on, EU and its member states imposed sanctions against Myanmar for the numerous human rights violations and failure to follow the process of democratization.  The ASEAN had a different stance altogether by opining that the political instability and human rights violations were purely internal matters the ASEAN cannot interfere with.  Furthermore, denying membership then to Myanmar would be a violation of the ASEAN Declaration which opens membership to all countries in Southeast Asia.


(File photo) Burmese pro-democracy supporters and monks hold up placards as they shout slogans against the ruling Myanmar military junta during a protest march in New Delhi on September 26, 2008, on the first anniversary of the Saffron Revolution. Some 100 Burmese protesters marched in the Indian capital demanding the immediate release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, as they marked the first-year anniversary of the military junta’s bloody crackdown against the massive Monk-led pro-democracy protest in Myanmar. AFP PHOTO/RAVEENDRAN (Photo by RAVEENDRAN / AFP)

Prior to the 40th anniversary of the ASEAN, protests and demonstrations were held from May to September 2007 in Myanmar.  Known as the Saffron revolution, which was led by monks, military rulers authorized the use of force and violence to suppress and oppress the demonstrations.  This has led to many deaths and like the 2021 coup we are witnessing nowadays, the international response was overwhelming.  There was likewise international condemnation and sanctions were imposed.  There were also calls for the ASEAN to either disavow or otherwise react to the situation.  The ASEAN did not act as quickly as it should.  It also did not kick out Myanmar out of the regional organization.  It responded instead by condemning the violence committed and requested Myanmar’s government to exercise restraint as well as seek political solutions to foster national unity.  Other than this, the ASEAN did not intervene nor imposed sanctions like what other countries or regional organizations do.  Myanmar was even part of the celebrations for the ASEAN’s 40th anniversary and 13th ASEAN Summit.


-ASEAN in the spotlight-

And with what is currently going on now in Myanmar, the ASEAN is again thrown into the spotlight.  Civil society organizations and the international community are calling the ASEAN to act on the situation.  There is a call for the ASEAN to abandon its principle of non-intervention and act more actively and proactively towards the resolution of the Myanmar situation.  So far, Indonesia is on the forefront and the ASEAN foreign ministers recently met to discuss the situation.  From this meeting, they have called on the military leadership to engage in peaceful talks with the political leadership in the country to prevent further bloodshed brought upon by the violent responses of the military against protesters.  This response was however rebuked by groups in the anti-coup movement, including ousted lawmakers.  They posit that neither ASEAN nor its member states should negotiate with “terrorists” such as the military junta group.  Some also find the ASEAN response insufficient and instead expect the ASEAN to actively intervene, disavow the military coup leaders, and impose sanctions, if necessary.

A picture of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is seen as Myanmar migrants living in Thailand hold hands during a memorial in Bangkok on March 4, 2021 to honour those who died during demonstrations against the military coup in their homeland. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

To be honest, I have my reservations against foreign intervention especially when other countries or international organizations see it fit to dictate what course of action should be taken because they have the moral high ground. While human rights violations are admittedly an issue in Myanmar that needs to be addressed, I am not 100% convinced of the approach being adopted by the European Union, the United States, or the United Nations, for example.  These responses can be counter-intuitive in the short-term to long-term and are normally out of touch with what is truly happening on the ground.  Thus, in the end it can be the citizenry that suffers.  I can discuss this further in another contribution but for purposes of the topic at hand, I am of the opinion that these international responses are an exercise not only in normative power but also a soft hegemonic power — or white man’s burden — reminiscent of the period of imperialism and colonization.


Having said this, people might end up disappointed with the response being given by the ASEAN to the Myanmar situation, but they cannot expect the regional organization to be what it is not.  It is not like the European Union with supranationalism qualities and is an authority of its own.  Ingrained in the functional framework of the ASEAN is the principle of non-intervention.  To put it simply, this principle dictates that the ASEAN cannot interfere in the domestic matters of its member states.  Also, the member states cannot interfere in the domestic matters of its fellow member states.  In operative terms, it contemplates the following aspects: (1) refraining from criticizing the actions of a member government towards its own people, including violation of human rights, and from making the domestic political system of states and the political styles of government as basis for deciding membership in the ASEAN; (2) criticizing the actions of states, which were deemed to have breached the non-interference principle; (3) denying recognition, sanctuary, or other forms of support to any rebel group seeking to destabilize or overthrow the government of a neighboring state; and (4) providing political support and material assistance to member states in their campaign against subversive and destabilizing activities.  Thus, the ASEAN cannot actually act and intervene actively in the Myanmar situation.


To put things into the proper context, this principle is grounded on the historical, socio-political background of the region and its member states: history of colonial intervention, the great military intervention during the Cold War, and the emergence of post-colonial nation-states in Southeast Asia, whose interstate disputes were compounded by internal problems with no regard for territorial frontiers.  In other words, it was a response to the different problems and challenges faced by the ASEAN and its member states.  Significantly enough, together with the consensus-building approach of the regional organization, the principle of non-intervention has prevented conflict in the ASEAN and among its member states notwithstanding disagreements that may arise between and among them.


There have been numerous times in the history of the ASEAN when modifications to the principle of non-intervention have been proposed but still, the principle withstood the test of time.  Presently, only “enhanced interaction” is allowed. It is a process wherein individual member states could comment on domestic policies of another, should these have regional repercussions, but would leave ASEAN out of the equation.  It can now be found in the ASEAN Charter and it applies in the ASEAN Surveillance Process and ministerial troika.


Given these circumstances, the ASEAN response is understandable.  I understand where it is coming from. However, I believe that the ASEAN has more or less enabled the Myanmar situation.


There are four catalysts of deliquent behavior or action: means, motivation, opportunity, and the lack of social control.  Applying these to the Myanmar situation in the simplest way possible, the ASEAN could have been the social control that would have prevented the military junta from happening or continuing.  To say it bluntly, the ASEAN framework has enabled and tolerated the military junta.  When Myanmar was still under military rule and joined the ASEAN as a member state, the ASEAN could have easily nip it in the bud.  Amidst the different allegations of human rights violations during that time, Myanmar could have made a positive undertaking to protect, respect, and defend human rights.  The ASEAN and member states could have demanded it from Myanmar even if it was not necessarily a condition precedent for membership in the regional organization.  But they did not do so.


Then the Saffron revolution occurred in 2007.  Despite the fact that the ASEAN Charter was well on its way to be implemented, wherein in equivocal terms ASEAN member states avowed respect for human rights among other things, the ASEAN only condemned the actions but there was no follow through.


Police charge at protesters as they crack down on demonstrations against the military coup in Yangon on February 27, 2021. (Photo by Sai Aung Main / AFP)

And now the military coup has happened wherein the reins of power were re-taken forcefully by the military rulers in Myanmar. By now, the ASEAN does not only have its ASEAN Charter but also the Human Rights Declaration.  Albeit the ASEAN does not have its own adjudicatory body like the EU, Myanmar as a member state should be beholden in its duty to promote, respect, and defend human rights regardless of whoever is in the seat of power at this very moment.  Thus, the response of the individual member states can be expected and yet in the context of the ASEAN regional framework, everything seems to have fallen short.  Thus, this has further enabled and emboldened the military junta.


-What can the ASEAN do?-

Taking these into account, what course of action should then be taken to resolve the situation? What could the ASEAN and its member states do as an effective and efficient response to the situation? Well, it should go to the ground and intervene. A humanitarian intervention by the member states can be done to mediate between the parties involved.  The ASEAN can be the forum for mediation while the member states could serve as the mediators.  This is regardless of whether the anti-coup movement thinks that the military junta is in itself a terrorist group and that no negotiations with terrorists should be made.  But at this point, sticking to hard-line positions is not the solution.  Instead, focusing on the problem is more important.  The sanctity of the nation and the safety of the citizenry is of primordial consideration.  Yes, democratic institutions should be reinstated but in the weighing of values, I would put the safety of the nation and its citizens first.  Talks on democracy could follow during the process of reconciliation.  I think it is high time that the ASEAN and its member states become more than idle bystanders.  Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin Jr. said it best — that the principle of non-intervention  “is not a blanket approval or tacit consent for wrong to be done” in Myanmar.  By mediating and proactively intervening, the ASEAN and its member states won’t necessarily circumvent the principle of non-intervention because they won’t dictate what Myanmar should do.  They would just be there to mediate and help in the resolution of issues.  This would also be consistent with the consensus-building approach of the regional organization by hearing the parties out and ensuring that there will be no more bloodshed.  What people should understand is that even if we believe that the military junta is illegitimate and a terrorist in Myanmar at this moment, we would still need to deal with them if we want things to end.  Locking in a position would not lead to any resolution.  This is what we call principled negotiation and this likewise applies in the Myanmar situation.  Thus, while I truly understand where the anti-coup movement is coming from in their qualms against the ASEAN response or any form of mediation, we need to remember which is more important at this point.  Are we willing to maintain a hard line against the military junta at the expense of more deaths and violence against the people? Or isn’t it more important to bring them to the negotiation table so that there is even a sliver of hope that things can be better?



The author, Dr. iur. Atty. Ma. Angela Leonor Aguinaldo, J.D., LL.M., writes a  regular column/blog for eaglenews.ph. With her knowledge and expertise in international law, international criminal law, criminology, forensics and digital evidence, issues surrounding law and technology, as well as on ASEAN and EU matters, and her passion to help others understand these complex issues better, she will be analyzing current world issues and even give her take on pop culture. As can be gleaned from the title of her column/blog “The Knightfall Protocol“, “Angel” as her friends and loved ones know her, is a fan of the Arkham games and the caped crusader is her favorite superhero.  For comments and suggestions, you can reach her at [email protected]