Every year since 1976, ten of Southeast Asia’s top leaders have come together at the main summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), hoping to address the region’s most pressing policy issues. But, before this year’s gathering in Brunei, ASEAN’s member-states made a highly unusual move: They took a political stance.
During an emergency meeting on October 15, 2021, nine members of ASEAN—Southeast Asia’s most important regional body—agreed not to admit a representative from Myanmar’s military government to their Brunei summit. In their statement, ASEAN pointed to Myanmar’s “insufficient progress” towards a peace plan meant to calm political unrest after a military coup deposed Myanmar’s democratically-elected government earlier this year and violently suppressed protesters. Myanmar’s top general, Min Aung Hlaing, strongly objected to ASEAN’s decision and refused to send a suggested “non-political representative” to Brunei. When the summit began later in October, Myanmar was part of its agenda—but not its members.
While Myanmar’s absence from one meeting may not seem significant, ASEAN has never excluded a member from its summit, under a long-standing policy of neutrality that stems from Cold War paradigms under which ASEAN formed. Yet, ASEAN’s passive nature only complicates its responses to the Myanmar situation. Although ASEAN’s non-political stance helped facilitate economic growth and regional stability, the Cold War is over, and Southeast Asia now faces political problems and worldwide realities that ASEAN neutrality often can’t respond to. As exemplified by the Myanmar crisis, ASEAN must take a more active leadership role in Southeast Asia and break with its nonpolitical past in order to meet the global challenges of today.
In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, ASEAN’s five founding states—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand—met in Bangkok to discuss the group’s founding principles. Most of ASEAN’s founding (and future) members shared the political, social, and developmental problems of many postcolonial nations. ASEAN’s members, already wary of each other after various regional disputes, were further affected by Cold War politics: Although all of ASEAN’s original members united around anti-communism, some assisted the United States in its security interests, while others committed to a “Non-Aligned Movement” popular among decolonized nations. ASEAN’s founding members sought autonomy from Cold War dynamics, stronger regional cooperation, and dynamic economic development; ASEAN would become a place for those nations to facilitate dialogue and solve common problems.
Since its inception, ASEAN has operated under strict policies of “non-interference,” where each nation agrees to stay out of the internal affairs of other nations; and “consensus,” where decisions must be reached unanimously—giving any one nation the ability to overrule the other nine. Such a non-interference policy stems from the Non-Aligned Movement, intended to promote a third way between capitalist and communist nations. As a result, ASEAN usually distances itself from most of its members’ internal issues, allowing it to coordinate economic and trade policies without worrying about domestic politics.
On many fronts, ASEAN has been a success story. Since the 1970s, ASEAN nations have experienced some of the world’s highest rates of economic growth and are essential trading partners for countries around the globe; in fact, Singapore now ranks above the United States in the Human Development Index. ASEAN has also largely upheld political stability in Southeast Asia, providing a relatively neutral platform for dialogue among ideologically diverse (albeit mostly-illiberal) nations. In many ways, ASEAN’s non-political policy has delivered on its promises of peace and prosperity.
But the post-Cold War world has complicated ASEAN’s regional role. In the mid-1990s, ASEAN admitted a number of nations formerly aligned with the Soviet Union, including Vietnam and Laos; it could no longer build solidarity around anti-communism. Furthermore, a series of economic crises—the IMF crisis in 1997, the 2008 recession, and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic—have threatened ASEAN countries’ economic growth and weakened the institution’s value as a discursive platform. ASEAN’s ideological spectrum has also grown: Some of its members made democratic transitions, while others opted for autocratic or monarchic regimes. ASEAN’s members increasingly disagree on how the body should treat democracy, governance, or human rights and freedoms, fomenting division and inaction under its neutrality policy.
The Myanmar crisis has tested ASEAN’s commitment to neutrality. In previous responses to the crisis, ASEAN stuck to its nonpolitical policy: It refused to take sides between the Burmese military and the National Unity Government, issued a non-committal statement on the matter, and “facilitated” a peace plan that the military promptly ignored. Divisions within ASEAN deadlocked emergency summits and halted meaningful progress: Some members, including Indonesia and Singapore, favored a stronger response, while countries that have closer ties to Myanmar, like Thailand, wanted to uphold neutrality. However, pressure from the United States and UN, as well as concerns about Burmese stability and ASEAN’s international credibility, forced a majority of ASEAN’s members to finally act against Myanmar.
The Guardian called ASEAN’s stance a “rare bold step” against the Burmese military and a sign of support for the opposition National Unity Government. While ASEAN is taking steps in the right direction, it’s unclear whether ASEAN intends to truly break from its neutrality policy: ASEAN did not actually recognize the NUG’s representative itself, giving the Burmese military an alibi, and military representatives have attended other ASEAN functions. What is clear is that ASEAN did not actually resolve the Myanmar crisis, nor did they halt the numerous human rights violations committed by the Burmese military.
As long as ASEAN clings to non-interference and consensus, it will never be able to address the Myanmar situation; instability in other member-states; the growing geopolitical schism between the United States and China; the Covid-19 pandemic; or the existential threat of climate change. ASEAN cannot fulfill its capacity as a problem solver if it only focuses on agreements.
If ASEAN is to stay relevant in Southeast Asia and abroad, it must embrace a stronger sense of regionalism and assert its role in guiding domestic policy. Unifying ASEAN’s Covid-19 response and establishing a regional travel corridor could help Southeast Asia bolster tourism and assist in economic recovery. Taking a more active approach to diplomatic affairs could help ASEAN establish itself as an alternative to the United States’s Quad Alliance or China’s Belt and Road Initiative, helping its members avoid the binary narrative being written by the United States and China. Actively leading a peace process in Myanmar, rather than passively shunning its government, would let ASEAN uphold its own human rights doctrine—both for the sake of its international status and for the dignity of the people of Myanmar.
All of these challenges are complex and require a high level of commitment from each ASEAN member. ASEAN’s charter has no guidelines when responding to coups, so any further actions against Myanmar would be traversing uncharted waters. Furthermore, getting rid of ASEAN’s non-interference policy would present new problems in governance and cooperation, as political divisions between ASEAN’s members could come to the forefront and gridlock meaningful action. Yet, ASEAN’s nations have shown a remarkable capacity to adapt, cooperate, and change. If they are willing to break from their past and leap into the present, a brighter future may await Southeast Asia.