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May 17, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: The ASEAN Way Must Change

Posted by Vanessa Chong and Tanyalak Thongyoojaroen

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first published to Just Security on May 14, 2021). 

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long failed to meet its aspirations of supporting the rule of law and human rights, instead emphasizing to a fault the principle of non-interference in the “internal affairs” of its members – even when these internal affairs entail mass atrocity crimes. Most recently, this ambivalence has manifested in a lack of concrete actions in response to the coup in Myanmar. This ineffectual reaction underscores what has long been clear: ASEAN must change its approach to the “internal affairs” of its members and recognize that regional stability depends on respect for democracy, human rights, and rule of law within each member.

ASEAN’s Response to the Myanmar Coup

When the Myanmar military attempted to seize all levers of power on Feb. 1 and detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and scores of others, the Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, Prawit Wongsuwan, promptly dismissed news of the coup d’état. “It’s their internal affair,” he said. At the height of the junta’s attack on unarmed civilians, on March 27, three members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Thailand, Viet Nam, and Laos – sent representatives to a military parade in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, hosted by coup-leader Min Aung Hlaing. On the same day, strong evidence indicates that Min Aung Hlaing’s forces killed more than 100 women, men, and children in a matter of hours.

When ASEAN foreign ministers met in an “informal” meeting on March 2, the first involving the bloc since the power grab, the ministers failed to muster a collective condemnation of the coup, let alone address the systematic killings underway. On April 24, ASEAN held a special summit on Myanmar, inviting Min Aung Hlaing but not representatives of the elected civilian government he overthrew. Without input from such elected officials, the ASEAN leaders reaffirmed the bloc’s commitments “to the purposes and principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, including adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government, respect for fundamental freedoms, and the promotion and protection of human rights.” As he stepped out of the meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin celebrated the outcomes of the convening by hastily declaring “We have succeeded.” As the leaders met that day and spoke of rule of law, at least 3 people were killed in Myanmar.

The April 24 meeting resulted in ASEAN’s “Five Points of Consensus,” an agreement on five issues to facilitate a peaceful solution for Myanmar’s current crisis. However, there are clear warning signs that the group will fall short of its commitments. ASEAN not only failed again to condemn the coup or call on Min Aung Hlaing to immediately return power to the elected government, it failed to specifically condemn past attacks on civilians and once again evaded holding Min Aung Hlaing accountable for these attacks.

These clumsy, callous approaches are nothing new. They are sadly consistent with traditions of “the ASEAN way”  – a euphemism for a style of regional cooperation that puts national sovereignty first  and that emphasizes “non-interference” in the “internal affairs” of other states. But to ensure continued stability in the region, it is clear the old ASEAN way must change.

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