In an uncharacteristic rebuke, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this week barred coup and junta leader Gen Min Aung Hlaing — chair of the junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) and the “interim prime minister” — from attending its summit from 26-28 October. The group said only a non-political representative from Myanmar could participate. ASEAN cited its disappointment in the lack of progress in the five-point agenda laid out at a special leaders’ meeting in April on easing political and social tensions in the country. The generals reacted by releasing several thousand political prisoners on 19 October, but this tactical move is unlikely to sway ASEAN from its position.
ASEAN’s move has two effects. First, it re-establishes some of ASEAN’s credibility as the main intermediary for the rest of the world on how to resolve the political crisis in the country. The generals had practically disregarded the five-point agenda after the April meeting, including a recent request by an ASEAN special envoy to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, and the absence of any repercussions would have further damaged the group’s credibility. With its recent move, external players — whether Western governments or multilaterals, and possibly even Beijing — will still have to consider ASEAN’s potential leverage. After all, it was the first time in ASEAN’s history that restrictions were openly and categorically imposed on a member state’s participation in a summit. However, speculation that this may signal a new approach by ASEAN to internal political disputes is overstated. This has more to do with ASEAN’s idea of protecting its centrality and credibility in issues that affect the region, rather than a shift in its principle of non-interference in member countries’ domestic politics.
Second, it makes a path towards legitimacy more difficult for the junta and sustains the reputational risks for western firms that continue to operate in the country. Since the coup, the SAC has struggled to present itself as a fait accompli to the rest of the world. This is not simply the result of the generals miscalculating external reactions to their takeover, but also their difficulty in establishing domestic control. The protests in the second quarter generated a perception of open and widespread public disapproval of the coup, while the creation in recent months of the National Unity Government (NUG), composed primarily of deposed MPs, as well as the armed people’s defense forces (PDFs) have effectively generated perceptions of a domestic resistance. The capacity of both to expand their movements are still suspect. But since the military has intensified its campaign against the PDFs as well as some ethnic insurgent groups, the conflict only validates the impression that it is not yet fully in control.
Away from the summit, negotiations are likely to take place on what concessions the SAC can offer that would cause ASEAN to reconsider the exclusion of Min Aung Hlaing from future meetings. To a certain extent, this would be a game of chicken. On one side are the generals hoping that the prospect of an empty seat in future meetings generates enough discomfort and attention within the organization that it would be seen by the more conciliatory countries such as Thailand as unsustainable. On other side are Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, who would likely continue to assert that compliance with the five points should remain a condition for his participation. Given the social unrest now in Myanmar, the outcome remains highly uncertain.