Regional grouping sheds ‘non-interference’ in Myanmar case but that’s only the first step

By Yanitha Meena Louis  and Muhammad Sinatra  

THE 38th  and 39th  Asean Summit kicked off on 26 October under the  chairmanship  of Brunei. The  summits  created  a buzz even before  they  started – with the unprecedented exclusion of Myanmar.  Asean  leaders  backed  this  bold  “interference”.  

This exclusion could save  Asean’s  credibility.  At a deeper level,  however,  the Myanmar crisis  has  forced  Asean into an “existential crisis” over its central tenets  and increasing scrutiny from regional and  international audiences.   

Perhaps this  is a blessing in disguise.  For so long, experts and the population have asserted the necessity for Asean to  “evolve”,  to stay relevant amid the dynamic realities of Southeast Asia.  

Our argument is  if  the humanitarian crisis and death of more than 1,000 civilians in Myanmar are not enough to  precipitate  “changes”, then perhaps Asean has lost perspectives on some of its lofty ideals.   

Others have framed this as an opportunity for Asean to undertake some “soul searching”. We, on the other hand,  contend that it is time for Asean to “evolve”,  which not only  involves  stock-taking its achievements and shortcomings but  find  ways to transcend its current state.   

In the face of a global crisis, Asean cannot afford  not to “evolve” when  the pandemic has forced everything and everyone to  “change”.  Asean cannot remain a relic of the past, an entity that does not resonate with regional reality.   

As the international community lauds Asean’s  decision to exclude the Myanmar junta,  they are giving more credit than it  deserves.  The decision was expected months ago when the situation in  Naypyitaw  was  deteriorating, with civilians facing the brunt of it.  Still, it is not too late to “evolve”.  

Asean must now live up to the  plaudit  and not  regress. For Asean, “evolving” could  mean  facing  the “elephants in the room”  head on  and engaging  all stakeholders, dialogue partner or not,  to find long-term solutions  to  regional challenges,  including  Myanmar. 

Asean must be  bold, strategic,  proactive, perceptive and most of all, introspective,  going into  these efforts.  

ASEAN will only succeed if it the people and member states believe in it, and its survival depends on its ability to stay relevant to the next generation. Pic courtesy of Shutterstock

Dialogue partners have supported  Asean-led  initiatives, more so after the onset of the pandemic. Asean  must reciprocate  to find solutions to pandemic recovery – trade, healthcare, vaccine equality  and  reopening of borders.  

Dialogue partners  recognise  the concept Asean  centrality.  Most of their  major initiatives pivot around  Asean’s  wellbeing and a desire to deepen cooperation with member states.   

Asean must  capitalise  on this  impetus and be  proactive  instead of reactive  to these efforts. “Evolving” here  means, for instance, shaping the agenda and  parameters  of  the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Quad,  US-Asean strategic partnership and India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative, among others.  

Asean must  also  be more receptive to  neighbours  which want to cooperate on pressing regional issues. This includes expanding its strategic partners.   

Take Bangladesh, for example.  The crisis in Myanmar has direct implications for Bangladesh, a country  host to more  than  1.2 million Rohingya as of August.  Dhaka is an obvious partner that Asean still has not engaged  to  develop  a  contingency model for the current situation.  

Asean’s  structure is another point to highlight.  With so many instruments, agencies and bodies functioning under its aegis,  Asean is a bloated bureaucracy,  even before the introduction of new instruments in the latest summits.   

These include the  public health coordination systems and centre for public health emergencies and emerging diseases. While these are to be lauded, they sap  the resource-strapped  Asean Secretariat and  member  states.   

To “evolve”, Asean should stop creating new bodies.  As it is, Asean’s bureaucratic structure, process and language alienate the people it  seeks to serve.  This gap is compounded by Asean’s communication difficulties. Its website and social media  fail to explain and reach out to the masses.  

Asean  will only succeed if it the people and member  states believe in it.  The younger generation  does not have a positive view towards Asean, at least among those with some knowledge about the grouping.  Asean’s survival depends on its ability to stay relevant to the next generation. To us, this means Asean needs to “evolve”,  by revisiting its core principles,  structure  and performance in the  54 years of its existence.  

This sounds like a broken record. But if the same ideas keep  emerging  over the years,  perhaps there  is some truth to them.   

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