In February 2021, Myanmar plunged into crisis when Min Aung Hlaing, the Army Chief of Myanmar, seized the country’s control. The coup was followed by the emergence of a large-scale Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) to bring down the new military junta through strict non-collaboration and large street protests.

The military junta responded by mounting a violent crackdown on the dissenting voices. These included restricting citizens’ freedom and brutal crackdowns on dissent. Thus, under the junta’s governance, the country and the whole region face serious repercussions.

International and regional organizations like ASEAN also faced several challenges directly resulting from this crisis.

From security impacts to commercial interests to reputational costs, the Association is finding it hard to settle the situation in peace. This was highlighted by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as well on, who speaking at the occasion of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting, said, “Cambodia, as well as all ASEAN member states, are deeply disappointed and disturbed by the execution of the opposition activists [in Myanmar].”

ASEAN’s unity has been questioned by the political and security prospects of the crisis in Myanmar. Accordingly, it has created an economic and humanitarian crisis. Moreover, ASEAN is facing many obstacles in its path to solving the situation in Myanmar.

What is happening in Myanmar?

Aung San Suu Kyi rose to power soon after civilian rule was established in Myanmar, and the power shifted from military to civilian rule. In 2015, she led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in Myanmar’s first openly-contested election in 25 years.

However, the military ousted her and President Win Myint, along with other senior leaders from NLD, in the coup of February 2021 and put her under house arrest.

One of the primary reasons behind the military coup that erupted in Myanmar was Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory in the elections, which caused the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), to suffer a significant blow in the 2020 elections and put the power that the military’s junta had enjoyed for years at stake.

General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the military, seized control following the coup. The country plunged into crisis in the State Administration Council (SAC) administration under which Army Chief Min Aung serves as the Prime Minister of Myanmar.

The coup was a huge setback to the country’s long struggle for democratic reforms. Correspondingly, it triggered mass protests and armed resistance. Opposition activists formed the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and organized strikes and mass protests. Local militias calling themselves People’s Defense Forces also engage in war with military convoys from time to time.

On the other hand, the military has responded to these protests with live fire, water cannons, and rubber bullets. The human rights group Assistance Association of Political Prisoners reported that the military junta’s security forces killed more than 2,400 people on 31st October.

The challenge for ASEAN

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) aims to promote intergovernmental cooperation and facilitate economic, political, security, military, educational, and sociocultural integration between states. Moreover, it also promotes regional peace, freedom, prosperity, and stability.

However, from being colonized by the western powers to facing the dilemma of capitalism vs. communism during the cold war, the ASEAN countries have faced incredible challenges throughout history.

Like all other organizations, ASEAN depends on its member states for effective cooperation in different fields. In this regard, Myanmar’s military suppression of citizens and democratic leaders might be an internal affair. However, it still threatens adequate adherence to the charter, Myanmar being an ASEAN state.

The authorities in Myanmar give little to no importance to the suggestions of the ASEAN leaders. They reject any reforms and negotiations put forward by the organization. Accordingly, a country in crisis is bound to affect its neighboring states.

It is causing member states to withdraw cooperation plans with Myanmar in hopes of isolating the junta. On the other hand, the military junta ending the people’s hopes of forming a democratic state also affects the non-democratic states of ASEAN.

While the military junta’s way of suppressing the civilian protests is cruel, some of the ASEAN countries chose not to condemn it because of the state of democracy at home. For instance, the socialist countries of ASEAN, like Vietnam, have not actively condemned the activities in Myanmar.

Security Crisis

Due to the crisis, Myanmar’s neighboring states face a sharp increase in criminal activity around the borders.

There is now a major threat to peace and human security in Myanmar, raising security concerns for neighboring states. For example, the execution of four activists in Myanmar; Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former NLD legislator, and Kyaw Min Yu, a prominent democracy activist, was hanged on July 25.

Two other men were also executed, accused of killing a military informant. The executions were the first in Myanmar since the 1980s and took place despite appeals for clemency worldwide.

More than 100 people have been sentenced to death, and many are in jail. These are crimes against humanity that threaten all citizens of the country. Furthermore, such illegal executions and detentions of citizens force many to seek refuge in neighboring states.

Subsequently, migration also brings many problems and allows some people to do their illegal work easily by hiding among the civilians. With increased flows of refugees, narcotics and other illicit activities are increasing in neighboring countries of Myanmar.

Thailand, a neighbor of Myanmar, has reported a significant increase in drug-related crimes since the crisis. Moreover, China has also arrested many people illegally crossing the Myanmar-China border.

This is a severe threat to ASEAN’s security community plan of action for building peace-building in the region. The existence of no fruitful consultations and negotiation mechanisms between member states and Myanmar’s junta is likely to put the neighboring states in further danger.

Reduced Cooperation

It is in ASEAN’s interests to hold open lines of communication with the authorities in Myanmar.

Likewise, they need to use the organization’s power to urge the army to return to its barracks post-haste. It is also to avoid the current political instability leading to another humanitarian disaster, like the Rohingya crisis.

In engaging the military, however, ASEAN risks legitimizing the very coup that gives rise to these risks. Because member states choose isolation over cooperation, it will help the military junta. They will be able to strengthen their hold on the country even more with the external pressure gone.

On the other hand, reduced cooperation is also causing the member states to face significant issues. Thailand, the third largest investor in ASEAN after Singapore and China, heavily depends on Myanmar for natural gas imports.

One of the largest Thai investors in the country, the Amata Group, has already cut its losses, halting plans for the $274 million Amata Smart and Eco City Project.

This reduced cooperation is causing the other states and Myanmar’s economic position to become unstable, affecting the whole region.

Isolation does not affect one party only; cutting ties with a country affects all concerned parties economically and politically.

The strained position of ASEAN

This crisis also reflects the weakness in the ASEAN structures.  However, as a regional organization, ASEAN does not have the mandate to intervene or take any particular position on the matters. Still, when we look at the essence of this crisis, there should have been any statement related to the crisis.

ASEAN has also overlooked Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims for years. Natives of Myanmar’s Rakhine State have been denied citizenship under a 1982 law. It is based on the presumption that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Moreover, the bloc continued looking away in 2017, when the Tatmadaw ramped up its long-running campaign against the Rohingya— torching their villages, raping their women, and massacring their infants during the process.

During this campaign, the Tatmadaw killed around 24,000 Rohingya and drove more than 730,000 to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

ASEAN’s promised noninterference protects these and other bloc members from human rights criticisms within domestic limits. Due to this, any concrete step to help Myanmar’s population could not be taken.

From Indonesia to Laos, none of the countries have actively worked in any way to urge the organization itself or international organizations to solve the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

Furthermore, ASEAN has failed to implement the five points consensus signed soon after the coup between Myanmar’s junta and other ASEAN countries, which emphasized ending all kinds of violence. The consensus points asked concerned parties to build a peaceful solution and the ASEAN to provide humanitarian assistance in Myanmar.

Additionally, it appointed a special envoy to address issues between the parties and uphold peace talks. Although the Junta in Myanmar had announced supporting the consensus up till now, not much has been done.

Need for an Immediate Response

The governments of ASEAN should recognize that looking away from any problem does not solve it. Every issue at the state, regional, and international levels requires a plan of action to solve.

This can not be done through individual effort. Even if a country tries to solve Myanmar’s crisis alone, it will most probably fail to achieve an effective result. Thus, states need collective action to respond to the situation.

Moreover, upholding the non-interference rule would bring no use. Under this situation, the International Law of the Right to Protect (R2P) is applicable. It includes protecting citizens in case the governing authorities threaten their lives.

ASEAN states can also collaborate with International Institutes in facilitating negotiations with the authorities in the government of Myanmar.

Moreover, there is a need to adopt strong measures to deter further atrocities and hold the military accountable.

For a year, governments worldwide have stalled taking action on Myanmar. If this continues, not only will the region plunge into a security crisis, but the world will also have to face severe setbacks.


*The research and opinion in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the institutions and those of the staff.