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ASEAN quiet diplomacy is more constructive




The recent coup in Myanmar is a chance to let the Association of Southeast Asian Nations do their work in quiet diplomacy. There has been criticism of ASEAN for failing to do more to condemn the military takeover and the crackdown that followed, leaving some analysts to question if it’s an organization that prefers to sit down and wait and see if the military crushes the protest movement, then go back to business as usual.

But even considering Indonesian President Joko Widodos to be very publiccallTo act last week, he still called for a high-level ASEAN meeting, further reinforcing Indonesia’s preference to engage Myanmar through the regional forum.

Discussions of coercive pressures such as sanctions have proved fruitless, as Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN special envoy, made it clear when report that the Myanmar armed forces, the Tatmadaw, dismissed the threat by saying: We are used to sanctions, and we have survived, we have to learn to walk with only a few friends. Min Aung Hlaing, the military commander-in-chief, is no stranger threats from the international community. The United States has sanctioned him twice, in 2019 and 2020, and the United Kingdom has imposed sanctions on him as well.

With the usual calm ASEAN diplomacy, the comfort level of the military leaders of Myanmars will no doubt increase, and this could possibly encourage them to engage with the regional grouping.

The power of ASEAN lies in the big picture, to create a unified position against outside pressure. Generally silent on the internal affairs of its member states, ASEAN’s great role is to calibrate the comfort level to ease potential tensions. In the process, quiet diplomacy facilitates voluntary and ultimately constructive engagement.

In light of Myanmars’ tense indoor climate, it is essential to avoid any course of action that could make the situation even worse, which could lead to more bloodshed.

An informal meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers was held virtually on March 2. The meeting highlighted an immediate priority for ending violence and the use of lethal force and for the release of ousted President Win Myint and State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi. The eventual Statement by the President of ASEAN reflects the group’s insistence on a united stand in helping Myanmar solve its own problems.

The difference this time around is how the leaders of Southeast Asia have been more vocal in urging the Tatmadaw to end the violence and the use of lethal force. Indonesia was advice and commitment all ASEAN member states, including the military leaders of Myanmars, to agree on a plan of action that would keep the junta on its promise to hold new elections. But Indonesia’s initial attempt to engage with the junta was met with protests at the Indonesian embassy in Yangon after the meeting leaked to Myanmar. The protesters argued that the visit of Foreign Minister Retno Marsudis legitimize military government.

A previous virtual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers before the military coup, in September 2020 (ASEAN Secretariat/ Flickr)

Likewise, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnans declaration During the ASEAN informal meeting, it was a direct message to Myanmar on the plight and Singapore’s disapproval of the use of lethal force against protesters in search of a future better. Balakrish’s final emphasis, the rest of us cannot do this for you. We can be helpful, we can be constructive, but you have to do it yourself. Send a subtle message to Myanmar’s military leadership that they are still in control of the situation, as a way to build confidence in the engagement.

Yet Burmese protesters threatened to boycott popular Singapore brands like Tiger Beer and the Ya Kun Kaya Toast coffeehouse chain for failing to take stronger action against the junta. Singapore police had to issue warning against holding protests in Singapore over political situation in Myanmar, although others protest marches took place in Thailand.

With the usual calm ASEAN diplomacy, the comfort level of the military leaders of Myanmars will no doubt increase, and this could possibly encourage them to engage with the regional grouping. Myanmar has in fact allowed ASEAN to tackle internal issues in the past, such as in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis of 2008, and has also engaged with ASEAN to support the planned repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Indonesia chose to persuade discussions on the situation in Rakhine State through ASEAN rather than the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) when the OIC became more and more critical. The ASEAN approach is less risky. The reclusive country has placed its trust in Role of ASEAN assess humanitarian needs and other conditions necessary to facilitate the repatriation and resettlement of refugees. While the slow progress in the repatriation process has come under close scrutiny, ASEAN’s engagement with Myanmar over the years has proven that time and patience are valuable assets.

It is clear that Myanmar needs help. Coup d’etat not only affects internal stability but also regional stability, especially with an increased sense of urgency during the deployment of the vaccine against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The turmoil is now beyond its seventh week. The economy is crippled by strikes by opponents of the takeover. With the country again fight Covid-19, healthcare workers boycotted their jobs in defiance of the military junta, so the true extent of the Covid-19 situation in Myanmar remains unknown.

In this climate, ASEAN is better seen as a forum for potential solutions, not as an obstruction.

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