THE 56 members of the Dewan Rakyat and the three senators are to be commended for calling on Asean to suspend Myanmar’s membership of the regional organisation.
Unless Asean does something drastic, when many are dead and gone, and Myanmar returns to some kind of normalcy, it will have damaged further its vacuous claim to being a political community.
It would seem, as a grouping, the only notion of political association driving Asean is the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, in which case the member states might as well have remained separate as that principle is upheld in international law in the world community.
Even in international law, however, there are covenants against genocide and the use of violence domestically, with particular efforts on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) since 2005, resting on three pillars: the responsibility of states to protect its populations, the responsibility of the international community to assist in such protection, and to so protect directly when states are so clearly failing to do so.
However ineffective international law may be, it is a means of pressure to record wrongdoing, which can go further if powerful states organised around a closer community, like Asean, take action in accordance with it. In the case of Asean, the imbalance between non-interference and violations of domestic populations, is a disgrace.
Asean was not able to do something collectively about the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar. It fell upon Gambia to take the matter to the International Court of Justice in 2019 for crimes against the community and ethnic cleansing, based on the 1948 Genocide Convention.
Where was Asean, which admitted Myanmar to the regional association in 1997, apparently because of the good that would come from engagement, rather than ostracising that country? What engagement took place after 730,000 Rohingya were expelled following killings, arson and rape. The Genocide Convention was the burning crucible within the Asean Charter’s principles of good governance and justice.
Yet Asean was unmoved, locked out by one principle only, non-interference in the domestic affairs of another country. The same holds true today following the coup on Feb 1 by the military, which now rules with force, violence and killing of its own population, who are seeking only that the outcome of the election last November be honored.
The statement by current Asean Chair Brunei immediately after the coup called for dialogue among the parties, reconciliation and the “return to normalcy”. It recalled the purpose and principles enshrined in the Asean Charter, the adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
This was as far as it could go, as there was no consensus to go any further. Whatever it meant was in any case quickly negated by statements from Cambodia and Thailand that what was happening in Myanmar was its internal affairs.
One wonders what Asean member states that are so quick to put up the barricades of internal affairs are storing up for their people. At some point in the future, Asean would imaginably be mumbling words of not much consequence with no action or even a firm warning. The miracle of Asean is how it has survived for so long on this diet of political meaninglessness.
The much celebrated “success” of Asean in keeping the Cambodian United Nations seat for the Khmer Rouge after Vietnam invaded that country at the end of 1979 and installed the Heng Samrin puppet regime, showed that Asean could work together (at the time the fear of Vietnam was great and Southeast Asian countries saw themselves falling like dominoes against the Vietnamese onslaught).
But it also demonstrated that the bestiality of the domestic regime was secondary to invasion, the most direct form of interference in domestic affairs of another country. The Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979, had killed between 1.7 and three million of its Cambodian people. There always is a deathly aftertaste, when evil acts committed behind borders are sustained by keeping domestic affairs beyond the concern of others.
Without Indonesian leadership, Asean would be in absolute political wilderness. The republic’s foreign minister has been trying her best to whip up Asean action. Brunei has been active. There were strong words from Singapore and Malaysia, but nothing more as violence against civilian populations
Where are the others? The Asean charade cannot continue. Decisions by consensus have to be reviewed if clear-cut cases, such as Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing and killings of its own people, are allowed to stand with impunity. On Myanmar in particular, Malaysia — as one of those who pushed strongly for its membership of Asean in 1997 — has a responsibility to be more active in getting Asean to act.
Beyond that, it is about time that Asean is reformed. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, Asean continues to make decisions in a slow and ponderous manner when the need for urgency is greatest, when lives and livelihoods are at stake.
Now, when people are being mowed down in one of its member states, Asean is still not responding with clear and fast action.
Those who have made so many comments in the past about why countries must not interfere in the affairs of another should be careful what they wish for. Life is dear. Suffering has no borders. R2P is not just an international obligation and a moral duty. You could be the next victim.
Aung San Suu Kyi did herself no favours by absolving the Myanmar military of genocide of the Rohingya. Now she is in detention again as is Myanmar under military rule. What goes around comes around.
Meanwhile, Asean is up there for all to see as more interested in allowing member states to carry on within their internal borders in any way they like, without legal or ethical concern for human life.
The writer, a former group editor of NST, is visiting senior fellow and member of the Advisory Board of LSE IDEAS (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy)