After months of doing little to answer the Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar—in addition to the Myanmar army’s subsequent crackdown on civil society and murdering of opponents, and its total mismanagement of the nation—the Affiliation of Southeast Asian Nations lastly took a step towards a extra resolute response in late October, when it disinvited Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from its annual summit in addition to the East Asia Summit instantly thereafter. He was additionally not invited to a gathering between ASEAN and European states in late November.
On the ASEAN summit, a number of Southeast Asian leaders additionally provided criticisms of the junta. Based on Indonesian Overseas Minister Retno Marsudi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, advised different ASEAN leaders that regardless of the group’s precept of noninterference in members’ inside affairs, it was “obligated to uphold different rules … like democracy, good governance, respect for human rights, and a constitutional authorities.”
The developments on the October summit had been made attainable partly by ASEAN’s chairmanship, which rotates among the many 10 member international locations annually and comes with substantial powers of agenda-setting and selecting particular envoys for disaster conditions like Myanmar, along with internet hosting main conferences. The ASEAN chair in 2021 was Brunei, which regardless of being an authoritarian absolute monarchy, was prepared to work with extra democratic Southeast Asian states that needed to maintain Myanmar out of the summit. To be clear, Brunei’s ruling sultan didn’t appear thrilled with Myanmar’s isolation, asserting on the October summit that Myanmar was nonetheless “an integral a part of the ASEAN household.” Nonetheless, the tiny state went together with disinviting Min Aung Hlaing.
On the finish of the summit, nevertheless, ASEAN’s chairmanship was handed over to Cambodia for the approaching 12 months. Led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia is a bigger, extra formidable authoritarian state than Brunei. Hun Sen provided a gentle critique of the junta throughout the summit, however he himself is among the longest-serving autocrats on this planet. Furthermore, a few of Cambodia’s closest regional companions would additionally quite ignore the junta’s abuses and renormalize ties with Myanmar, whilst Myanmar’s military launches a scorched earth offensive and the nation tumbles towards changing into a failed state.
Cambodia is way from being the one impediment to a extra muscular ASEAN response. In spite of everything, till October, ASEAN was tepid in its reproach of Myanmar, although the junta’s mismanagement of the nation boosted refugee flows and probably unfold COVID into neighboring states. The junta had additionally ignored ASEAN’s 5-point plan for resolving the disaster and repeatedly snubbed the particular envoy the group appointed to handle it.
As well as, ASEAN’s choice to disinvite Min Aung Hlaing from the annual summit got here solely after intense worldwide strain on the bloc. Earlier than the retracted invitation, Min Aung Hlaing had been rubbing shoulders with high Southeast Asian officers, together with these from Thailand and Indonesia. Certainly, only a few weeks after his supposed ostracism from the October summit, the junta chief held conferences with Thailand’s overseas minister and deputy prime minister, in addition to with senior officers from China.
Now, with Cambodia holding the chairmanship, ASEAN’s already watered-down strategy towards Myanmar probably will likely be diluted even additional in 2022. For one, as Charles Dunst of CSIS notes, Cambodia already has a repute inside ASEAN for blocking initiatives that many members help, like a joint place on the South China Sea. Hun Sen’s historical past of intransigence suggests he won’t be swayed by extra democratic ASEAN states that need to act in opposition to Myanmar.
With Cambodia holding the rotating chairmanship, ASEAN’s already watered-down strategy towards Myanmar probably will likely be diluted even additional in 2022.
Hun Sen additionally doesn’t need to facilitate a long-running interval of isolation of a Southeast Asian authoritarian chief, at a time when he himself is cracking down more durable on Cambodia’s political opposition and civil society than at any time in latest a long time. And since ASEAN operates by consensus, the Cambodian chief will have the ability to block any proposed Myanmar insurance policies in 2022.
In recent times, Cambodia has shifted from being an autocratic state that also maintained a vibrant—if weak—civil society, press and opposition political motion to a whole autocracy. Within the final nationwide election in 2018, the most important opposition celebration was dissolved earlier than the vote, and Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian Folks’s Social gathering received each parliamentary seat. Within the election previous to that one, in 2013, earlier than Hun Sen’s complete crackdown, the opposition got here near defeating the CPP.
Not surprisingly, then, Hun Sen needs to make sure that regional criticism of authoritarian leaders doesn’t turn out to be commonplace, and much more so now, as he presides over a interval of doubtless fraught—and autocratic—succession in Cambodia. As David Hutt, a longtime Cambodia observer, notes, Hun Sen appears to be taking a spread of steps to make sure that his son, Hun Manet, succeeds him as prime minister, whereas putting different members of the family in high political positions, despite the fact that another high Cambodian politicians seem to oppose a dynastic transition.
In the meantime, Cambodia’s most vital patrons, China and Vietnam, again this softer strategy towards Myanmar. So does Thailand, which shares a protracted border with Myanmar, has tight hyperlinks to Myanmar’s military and is itself run by a former coup chief and good friend of Min Aung Hlaing, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Prayuth’s quasi-civilian authorities was fashioned after 5 years of army rule following a 2014 coup. In truth, within the run-up to the October summit, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos reportedly nonetheless needed to ask Min Aung Hlaing and solely reluctantly agreed to this one-time snub.
Even China, which has little cause to be thrilled by the coup authorities, won’t brazenly censor Myanmar. It has maintained its public silence even because the Myanmar financial system has collapsed and anti-junta resistance teams have stepped up their battle in opposition to the army in a rising civil conflict, and regardless of assaults on Chinese language firms within the nation. Beijing would most likely desire a return to the pre-coup association of the civilian Nationwide League for Democracy sharing energy with the Myanmar army, which had been a boon for Myanmar-China ties and for Chinese language funding within the nation. Nonetheless, Beijing won’t help any more durable strategy towards Naypyidaw, and it actually doesn’t need to lose affect in Myanmar to Russia, which has embraced the coup authorities, going as far as to host Min Aung Hlaing in Moscow and promote arms to the junta.
All these components recommend that Cambodia will additional weaken ASEAN’s already tepid stance on Myanmar, whilst strain from democratic powers like america and European Union, that are distracted by the worldwide pandemic and their very own home challenges, is unlikely to materialize. Certainly, Cambodia already appears to be pushing for a softening of the bloc’s strategy. In early November, Kao Kim Hourn, Cambodia’s minister delegate connected to the Prime Minister’s Workplace in control of overseas affairs and ASEAN, advised a webinar that ASEAN has to have interaction “constructively” with Myanmar. “We want dialogue on this crucial second,” he stated, to “preserve the doorways open and have interaction.”
Inside the bloc, the phrase “engagement” usually means
boosting ties or resuming regular hyperlinks with a rustic. And it bears noting that Kao Kim Hourn made no point out of Myanmar’s junta first taking steps towards fulfilling the five-point plan the group set out for restoring peace and democracy in Myanmar earlier than ASEAN engages.
It appears probably that in 2022, the junta could face critical threats from armed ethnic organizations inside Myanmar, the more and more highly effective and efficient guerilla teams referred to as Myanmar Folks’s Protection Forces, and the parallel Myanmar government-in-exile. Nevertheless it won’t have to fret a lot about ASEAN.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia on the Council on Overseas Relations.