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Myanmar’s Junta: Regional Reactions and Recommendations

Written by Lydia McCoy

BA International Affairs, Russian; MA International Policy Candidate

Executive Summary

The military junta in Myanmar remains in power since forcibly overthrowing Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government and installing itself in February 2021. Elected leaders and other dissidents were arrested, homes and businesses looted, civilians beaten and shot dead in the streets. Since taking power, the junta and its security forces are responsible for killing at least 745 people and detaining over 3,300. The military has targeted civilians and political dissidents in its violent crackdowns.

There has been a mixed response to the junta internationally, especially in ASEAN. Many countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have utilized targeted sanctions while members of ASEAN are skirting around the issues in Myanmar in an attempt at non-intervention. At a recent ASEAN summit, the group outlined its five-point plan to tackle the coup, but it still falls short. The Myanmar junta is an intricate and delicate topic in South Asia, and a closer look at the responses to the crisis reveals the many opinions regarding how to effectively deal with the current regime. The following paper attempts to examine the historical and regional context for the junta and the regional responses. It ends with some brief policy recommendations for ASEAN to ameliorate the crisis in Myanmar.

Key words: Myanmar, coup, junta, military, ethnic cleansing, ASEAN

Regional Context

Myanmar, formally known as Burma, existed as a sovereign state since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. After an extensive stint under military rule from 1962-2011, democracy entered. Myanmar is a member state of ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and is bordered by a few other member states: Thailand, Bangladesh, and Laos, as well as non-member states China and India. It is no secret that Myanmar has faced issues regarding ethnic cleansing and government corruption. This all came to a head on February 1, 2021, when, instead of newly elected democratic officials taking office, General Min Aung Hlaing took control of the government in the form of a military coup. Gen. Hlaing has a long track record of military support and maintained tight control of the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, throughout the state’s democratic transition.

ASEAN is playing a substantial role in the politics of the junta, although many argue it should be larger. To understand the role ASEAN plays in ameliorating the crisis in Myanmar, we must first understand ASEAN’s role in global politics. ASEAN’s ten member states include: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The goal of the group is to unite the Southeast Asian countries to collaborate on regional economic, political, and security issues. However, ASEAN’s impact is fairly limited due to its policy of non-intervention and consensus-based decision-making.

Prior to the crisis in Myanmar, the primary agenda item for ASEAN was China’s actions and incursions in the South China Sea. Although the bloc has a combined population of 650 million people and a combined GDP of $2.8 trillion, ASEAN struggles to create a cohesive vision and implement it. Member states have diverging interests, and the organization suffers from weak leadership. Some critics argue, however, that ASEAN succeeds at providing a neutral forum for Southeast Asian states to build relationships.

ASEAN’s Response

ASEAN held a summit in April in Jakarta following the junta takeover two months earlier. There was intense international backlash over the decision to invite Gen. Hlaing to the summit. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s leadership was the backbone of the summit and led to a five-point consensus published by the bloc. The points include: cessation of violence, constructive dialogue between the parties involved, a special ASEAN envoy to act as a facilitator, an envoy visit to Myanmar, and humanitarian aid. The consensus, however, falls short of condemning the actions of the junta in Myanmar, calling for the release of political prisoners, or a condemnation of the violence. Overall, the statement is vague.

Some individual member states, such as Indonesia, made clearer remarks, such as calling for the release of political prisoners. Individual governments commenting on the junta is uncommon for ASEAN due to their policy of non-interference, but the remarks are vital to bringing change to the situation. Other states, like Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, demonstrate a different point of view. They are more sympathetic to the junta, likely due to their close economic relations with Myanmar. To further compound their support for the junta, the states attended an Armed Forces Day celebration in Myanmar at the end of March that became one of the deadliest days of the junta thus far. The significance of this day is clear: some ASEAN states, namely Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, have all but declared their support for the junta in Myanmar and are not condemning any violence within Myanmar’s borders. Furthermore, some ASEAN members, such as the Philippines, find it difficult to make negative remarks regarding the crisis because their leaders also face international criticism for their own human rights abuses. For example, the Philippine government murdered thousands of its citizens during its war on drugs.

The five-point consensus is a starting point, but the hope it generates is quickly dashed with the inclusion of Gen. Hlaing’s presence at the summit. The motion of including the coup leader in ASEAN meetings hands him the legitimacy needed to continue his rule over Myanmar.

ASEAN’s five-point consensus directly contrasts its response to Myanmar’s 2007 Saffron Revolution. The Saffron Revolution included anti-government protests, leading to swift and violent military actions by the government towards the civilian population. In this instance, ASEAN quickly produced a statement calling out the military government in Myanmar and condemning its resort to violence.

Policy Recommendations for ASEAN

The ASEAN bloc holds the responsibility to ensure consensus-based decision making and collaborate on regional policy issues including security. However, ASEAN should not turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis occurring in Myanmar. It is an existential issue that has already displaced thousands internally and caused others to seek refuge in nearby states, including ASEAN members. Aware of this, ASEAN must:

  1. Remove Gen. Hlaing from any future ASEAN summits and urge all member states to not conduct talks with him in any official state capacity.

  2. Publicly condemn the military junta in Myanmar as an official body.

  3. Publicly call for the release of political prisoners, including President Suu Kyi, who is currently on house arrest and a court hearing for corruption charges.

  4. Create a sliding scale for consensus-based decisions.

    1. Seven of ten member states must have consensus when discussing strong language (such as condemning); for example, seven of the ten members must consent to condemn the military junta in Myanmar.

    2. Eight of ten member states must have consensus when discussing economic intervention; for example, eight of ten members must consent to targeted sanctions on junta leaders in Myanmar.

    3. A full consensus of all ten members is required for any military intervention on behalf of ASEAN.

  5. Revise the core principles of ASEAN to no longer include non-intervention as a primary tactic. However, military intervention specifically should remain a last-resort option following the exhaustion of diplomatic and economic means.

  6. Invite human rights non-governmental organizations (like Human Rights Watch) to monitor the situation in Myanmar and act as a third-party mediator.


The situation in Myanmar is dire. Every day there are more arrests and deaths. Although ASEAN has a strong pull in the region, the only way to ensure a peaceful resolution to the crisis is by amending the standard operating procedure of the organization. Gen. Hlaing cannot receive any sort of legitimization, meaning that the organization must decline to give him representation within ASEAN. ASEAN must condemn the actions occurring in Myanmar to demonstrate to other states in Southeast Asia, as well as the international community, that meaningful change is afoot. Non-intervention cannot remain as a core principle because it prevents the bloc from taking real action against members that blatantly violate the ASEAN charter and human rights. With the proper leadership by ASEAN, Myanmar stands a chance at returning to democracy in the near future; without it, though, there is a strong chance that Myanmar will remain a state torn apart by ethnic cleansing and a violent military junta.



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