Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
submitted by Gary Horvitz, to introduce an article by Thitinan Pongsudhirak in the Bangkok Post (linked at the end of the post).
One of the more obvious questions concerning the global response to the coup in Myanmar is whether Myanmar’s closest neighbors, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) will get involved or present any opposition to the blatant and unrelenting brutality with which a highly popular government has been overturned.
ASEAN has held meetings, which the Myanmar junta did not attend, and to which some other nations only sent junior representatives, after which bland boilerplate statements were released to the effect of promoting “continue dialogue” and expressing ‘grave concern’ over the events in Myanmar. The UN has also called the situation in Myanmar in which civilians, including children, have been murdered, arrested and tortured to death as one which requires a “Responsibility to Protect.”
But ASEAN is adhering to its core principles, one of which calls for non-interference. 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.” Such piety rings hollow, however, particularly in light of ASEAN failure to intervene with any effect in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya a few short years ago.
The UN’s insistence that ASEAN nations engage all parties towards brokering peace flies in the face of that principle of non-interference. It would seem that from the beginning, ASEAN has undermined its own standing in its founding documents and in its previous behavior. Thus, ASEAN engagement will continue to fall short wherever its actions or statements are interpreted by any member to exceed its collective mandate.
Considering that so many ASEAN governments themselves cannot be considered democratic, how could they be expected to enforce a return to democratic governance in one of their partner nations? Neither Thailand (military junta), Philippines (autocrat) and Cambodia (autocrat) and even tiny Brunei, an oil principality, can be considered democratic. Vietnam and Laos are run by communist parties. Singapore has a governing structure suggesting democratic principles, but in reality, the same party has governed Singapore since 1959. Even Indonesia, which claims to be a ‘guided democracy’ is more appearance than democratic substance. Malaysia comes close to being a democratic (Islamic) state, but virtually shuts out over 40% of its own population (ethnic Chinese) from political power commensurate with its numbers.
It is virtually inconceivable that ASEAN would exercise any influence over events in Myanmar. Even if they have mutual agreements for economic cooperation on specific projects, infrastructure development or trade, for any ASEAN nation to voluntarily opt out of these agreements on the basis of any principle would likely be regarded by the rest of the members as shooting themselves in the foot.
China is also a significant presence in Southeast Asia, partnering with a number of nations, financing development projects in energy and infrastructure, each with its own diplomatic, economic and political objectives for a long-term Chinese presence and influence in the region. China’s own non-interference policy, void of any governing standards or human rights principles, is focused solely on economic benefits, preventing its own interference in Myanmar. Indeed, the most immediate Chinese response to the coup was to demand the government protect its investments in Myanmar.
Before the new constitution and the handover to a popularly elected government, the Myanmar military enjoyed 50 years of benefiting itself while looting its own country of its most valuable resources, timber, mining and precious gems. IN a country with less than 50% of its population having access to electric power, China’s long-term interests in Myanmar includes the potential of hydropower development to meet Chinese energy demand growth. It’s inconceivable that any interference from either Laos, Cambodia or Thailand in Myanmar’s affairs would be met with anything other than hastily convened consultations for some private arm-twisting.
Thus, ASEAN is hamstrung by its own toothless founding documents, the culpability of its own member nations for their own autocratic regimes and rendered fully impotent by its dependence on China. No collectively endorsed statements condemning the Myanmar junta will be forthcoming.
Writing in the Bangkok Post, Thai political expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak even calls it an “existential crisis” for the grouping.