Managing an international crisis is not an easy task. On June 4th, two senior ASEAN diplomats met with General Mian Aung Hlaing, the leader of Myanmar’s military junta which in February seized power from the government of state councilor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League of Democrats (NLD) party. The visit organized by the current ASEAN chair Brunei Darussalam intended to advance the slow process to resolve the increasingly unstable situation in the country.
For this visit, Brunei sent its best men. Leading the delegation was Brunei’s Foreign Minister II Erywan Yusof who represented the sultanate in its capacity as the chair. Also in attendance was the apolitical ASEAN Secretary General who by coincidence this year is a senior Bruneian official Lim Jock Hoi. Both are seasoned ASEAN diplomats with years of experience negotiating joint statements, declarations, and trade agreements based on the consensus of the member states.
Even before the Bruneians’ arrived, the trip was shrouded in skepticism. Reuters reported that senior diplomatic sources claimed Brunei had, “little diplomatic leadership experience,” and thus faced a major challenge in hosting such delicate discussions. Such perceptions ignore Brunei’s history of diplomatic engagement with the region since it joined ASEAN upon its independence in 1984 as its smallest member state. In fact, the persistent rumors that the visit would be called off is only evidence that the Bruneians themselves were skeptical of engaging with the junta.
Yet it is the visit itself that has drawn the most attention. The major issue is that after the meeting with the junta representatives, Brunei released a chairman’s statement which referred to General Min Aung Hlaing in his avowed capacity as the “Chairman of the State Administration Council” of Myanmar. Regional analysts and human rights advocates were aghast. It appeared Brunei on behalf of ASEAN legitimized the coup government in Myanmar by de facto recognizing General Min Aung Hlaing as the nation’s ruler. In contrast, the emergency leaders’ summit Brunei chaired in April only referred to the general as the chief of Myanmar’s armed forces the Tatmadaw.
As a result, the visit was decried by the political opposition in Myanmar. They argued the Bruneian diplomats were being used by the junta which made a point of publicizing the meeting through state media in a clear attempt at a demonstrating the government’s international legitimacy. Moreover, after some speculation, the Bruneian diplomats did not meet with any representatives of the National Unity Government (NUG) formed by NLD parliamentarians in alliance with some of the myriad of ethnic minority armies already at war with the Tatmadaw. As a result of these actions, the NUG claimed it had lost all hope in ASEAN to resolve the crisis.
Despite retracting the statement days later, Brunei continues to face intense criticism for its handling of the crisis. Indonesia’s paper-of-record The Jakarta Post has been particularly critical of the Bruneians visit. Senior editor Kornelius Purba went as far as to claim the two diplomats acted as if “they were on a private mission with their own mandate. They slapped ASEAN and their own leader in their faces.” Later the editorial board of the paper itself declared the incident “Brunei’s disastrous mission,” and called upon Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah—ASEAN’s longest serving leader and the sultanate’s foreign minister—to “correct the mistakes” of his diplomats.
So, did Brunei commit a “diplomatic gaffe” as many have argued? To answer this, it is important to first understand the purpose of the June visit by the Bruneian diplomats to Naypyidaw.
Diplomatic gaffe or shrewd diplomacy?
The visit was the product of the “five-point consensus” reached after the April emergency leaders’ summit chaired by Brunei at the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta. That meeting itself resulted from the intense diplomacy of Brunei in cooperation with the “shuttle diplomacy” efforts of Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. Although the topic of discussion, Myanmar remained an ASEAN member and thus Brunei invited General Mian Aung Hlaing as the country’s representative, although not its de jure ruler. The ten ASEAN states agreed that “a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair shall facilitate mediation of the dialogue process,” and that the envoy would “meet with all parties concerned.” The problem facing Brunei as chair is to select such an envoy amiable to all the ASEAN members—including Myanmar, and to define the parameters of his or her work.
This was a difficult task as despite the successful April summit, ASEAN remains divided on the nature of any response. Two distinct sets of interests have formed opposing blocs although their members are not necessarily acting in concert as a result of their own national interests. The democratic maritime states—Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia are most troubled by the coup and the need to restore democratic governance and the rule of law. The mainland states Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam are simply interested in restoring stability—especially as internal conflicts within the country continue to escalate, forcing thousands of refugees across Myanmar’s borders and into its ASEAN neighbor Thailand and further afield.
This is also a difference in the nature of government. Most all the maritime states are democratic nations of some form—ranging from a true liberal democracy in Indonesia to an illiberal democracy in Singapore. The mainland states are more authoritarian governments including at least three avowedly Communist states in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, in addition to a powerful constitutional monarchy in Thailand with a government formed by a 2014 military coup. Brunei stands in the middle of these blocs as well—although it is a maritime state it is a “Malay Islamic Monarchy” with a distinctly British bureaucratic tradition and thus understands both perspectives.
Brunei is treading a fine line as it attempts to balance between the two camps in the interest of ASEAN unity. While a maritime state itself, as one of ASEAN’s smallest members, it cannot afford to break apart the organization as any instability in the regional political order would certainly threaten this oil-rich sultanate of less than 500,000 people. Thus, throughout the crisis, Brunei has been measured with its statements as chair to represent the consensus of the members.
As such, Reuters reported that Brunei circulated a concept paper in May outlining the duties of the proposed ASEAN envoy to Myanmar. The document entailed an envoy to be offered a small salary from their country of origin. The document also proposed a fairly restricted mission. The envoy would only be tasked with mediation, would not be based in Myanmar, and would only work until the end of Brunei’s tenure as ASEAN chair. Afterwards, it would be up to the incoming chair Cambodia—which has previously obstructed the formation of an ASEAN consensus on the South China Sea in 2012—to decide whether to continue the envoy and negotiate its future status.
However, the real sticking point is who will be appointed as the ASEAN envoy. On these questions, Brunei found itself balancing between regional giants Indonesia and Thailand. While Jakarta hoped to lead a strong mission to Myanmar to pressure the junta to curtail its behavior, throughout the crisis Thailand has consistently demonstrated a more sympathetic view to the junta. This is in part because, the instability in neighboring Myanmar has quickly forced thousands of refugees into camps along the Thai border threatening to destabilize its own frontier. Reportedly, ASEAN diplomats indicated a likely compromise is an Indonesian envoy supported by a Thai deputy and a Bruneian diplomat. Although Indonesia reportedly proposed former Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda, or possibly foreign minister Marty Natelgawa, Brunei has not yet officially named the envoy or his Thai and Bruneian colleagues.
Clearly, there is much to be negotiated over the issue of the envoys by the members. But as the process has dragged on, this has only fueled criticism of Brunei for not yet designating an envoy after almost two months. Ostensibly then, the goal of the trip by the Bruneian diplomats was to obtain the junta’s approval of an ASEAN special envoy in order to advance the appointment. This may seem counterintuitive, but only a candidate approved by consensus of the members could be a successful mediator, and that includes the de facto government of Myanmar led by the junta.
Why then implicitly recognize the junta? With Aung San Suu Kyi again facing trial and the NLD effectively banned, the junta has made clear it will not tolerate their return to power. Short of the ASEAN member states recognizing the opposition NUG government in exile, in an action that would certainly escalate the military conflict between the Tatmadaw and its ethnic minority opponents, General Min Aung Hlaing is the only political authority left. Any framework to end the conflict and host new elections will likely have to recognize his rule, at least in the interim. In fact, by inviting him to the ASEAN summit in April the organization already recognized his status as the nation’s de facto ruler and a representative of the leadership even if not the de jure recognized one.
Why then did the Bruneians not at least meet with members of the NUG? For one, such outreach was not within their mandate. That requirement to meet all stakeholders is the role of the envoy dedicated to “mediation,” to be chosen by Brunei with the consensus of all members. Those Bruneians simply put forward the names proposed to the junta. Whether they accepted or not is uncertain but the required back-and-forth between Myanmar and the other ASEAN members explains the continued delay in naming a final envoy suitable to all the member states.
In other words, the issue at hand is not some diplomatic embarrassment as many have claimed. By all accounts the envoys have remained true to the precepts of the “ASEAN Way” or the collective principles that govern diplomacy within the organization. Brunei has conducted quiet, low-key diplomacy behind closed doors and in pursuit of some compromise more or less palatable to all the members. This “bureaucratic” approach that some analysts now opine is the lifeblood of an organization dedicated to resolving tensions in a diverse region where peace and stability is only possible through regional unity. The value Brunei placed on institutional process means it is unlikely their two diplomats “went rogue” and acted without the knowledge of Sultan Bolkiah let alone without at least a partial or implicit consensus of the organization’s larger membership.
Therefore, Brunei’s careful diplomacy is not the issue at stake. The retraction of the statement says less about the sultanate than it does about the opposition of ASEAN’s largest member Indonesia.
It is no coincidence much of the criticism of Brunei is emanating from Indonesia. Jakarta is the most committed to a stronger stance against Myanmar in part to demonstrate its own leadership of the organization. In that sense, Indonesia is deeply unsatisfied with Brunei’s so-called “bureaucratic” approach. After the visit of the Bruneian diplomats Foreign Minister Marsudi called for greater “transparency” by Brunei. After the alleged recognition of the junta by the diplomats, The Jakarta Post was more direct: it called for Indonesia as the “leader” of ASEAN to rectify the situation and to essentially take charge of the ASEAN diplomatic efforts vis a vis Myanmar.
In contrast to the ASEAN Way of diplomacy rigorously pursued by Brunei, these demands call for Indonesia to take a different approach. That is, without Indoneisan leadership and pressure on the member states it will be impossible for a smaller state like Brunei to find a solution. Certainly, Indonesia has a role, but that is to help find a consensus solution—not to impose its own on the organization even if it is more just. The success of ASEAN is in its ability to balance the interests of its regional powers and restrain them through the respect for the equality and sovereignty of all the members. If Indonesia pursues a policy of coercion that will only weaken the organization and make it dependent on one state—Indonesia. It will no longer be an organization of collective unity intended to stabilize the region but a vessel for Jakarta to impose its will on the region. Given the failure of Indonesia’s last attempt to pursue such an active foreign policy under Sukarno this is not promising. While it may put pressure on the junta—to what effect is unclear—it will break the only institution that has helped forestall the return to a Cold War era logic in Southeast Asia.
The importance of consensus over coercion.
As for the issue of recognition, this is almost moot point. Bilaterally, Indonesia and Singapore are the only member states that do not explicitly recognize the junta administration in Myanmar. Both Malaysia and Brunei have remained ambiguous on this question while talks are ongoing. With the Philippines likely aligned with the mainland states on the issue of Myanmar, there already is more or less an ASEAN consensus on the matter barring the stringent objections of Indonesia. That is not surprising, Indonesia is clearly the most democratic of the ASEAN members dating back to the era of “People’s Power” pro-democracy protests that swept across Asia in the late 1990s. That period of democratic awakening saw the rise of leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi and the fall of military regimes in the Philippines and Indonesia—but not Myanmar. In that sense, Indonesia is sensitive to supporting democracy across the region and many identify with pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar today—but that emotional connection to the struggle for democracy in Asia does not change the fundamental principles that have made ASEAN a successful organization.
Thus, the problem is really Indonesia. It is attempting to assert its own will over the organization with regards to the situation in Myanmar. Those analysts that advocate for Jakarta to take on a more active role are really calling on ASEAN’s largest member to leverage its influence and power to pressure Naypyidaw into coming to an amiable arrangement. They are calling for Indonesia to use coercion against a fellow member state—albeit a reprehensible one—in order to end the violence. While it may be a morally righteous position to sanction and isolate the military regime, that is precisely the worst possible response for ASEAN. Moreover, it simply will not work.
Ironically, it is not inaction but a more dramatic response that would make the organization impotent. ASEAN would no longer be an organization able to muster the collective will and form some consensus in favor of regional unity—unless it expelled Myanmar. That in itself would set a dangerous precedent and weaken the organization that has successfully stabilize power relations throughout Southeast Asia through the use of an inclusive consensus approach to diplomacy. ASEAN would instead descend into the same problems plaguing NATO or the EU where competing states jockey for power, and when they cannot get their way, they are forced in line by larger states (temporarily) or they simply leave the organization in the long run. That would leave ASEAN impotent, robbed of its greatest power: its ability to unify the competing member states.
Frankly, for ASEAN to remain relevant, it needs to follow the example of Brunei. Lowkey diplomacy concentrated on balancing the different perspectives of the regional states but ultimately focused on achieving some agreement acceptable to all the members—including Myanmar is the only way ASEAN can find a resolution that maintains the organization’s unity.
While unfortunate, it is the reality that General Min Aung Hlaing is the ruler of Myanmar. The jailing of Aung San Suu Kyi and the outlawing of the NLD makes them increasingly irrelevant. The NUG lacks a military force capable of competing with the Tatmadaw. It may have the backing of the ethnic minority armies, but it without an independent military force. it is just a tool for the ethnic minorities to obtain further concessions from the central government.
This is precisely why the Bruneian diplomats only met with the junta. To negotiate with the opposition actors in Myanmar in defiance of the de facto government would be akin to Brunei interfering in the affairs of a member state. Only the envoy has that authority as Myanmar itself agreed to such a mediation role. While some special dispensation has already been awarded to deal with this specific crisis despite it being a domestic issue and only with the junta’s buy-in, any further escalation of the conflict through the recognition of a powerless opposition would only further alienate ASEAN’s most difficult member state. Between that and coercion, the organization would achieve nothing other than to weaken its own collective unity while strengthening its most powerful member Indonesia—and possibly China, the only ally left of Myanmar other it major arms supplier than Russia. Would that serve the interests of ASEAN’s smallest members? Not in the slightest.
For Indonesia too it would leave the largest member with a responsibility it is not prepared to handle. The country failed in the 1960s to impose its will military upon its neighbors, that is precisely why since Indonesia supported ASEAN as a means of stabilizing the region. To take the issue of Myanmar upon itself would only undo decades of successful diplomatic engagement with its neighbors. That would return the region a instable strategic architecture that only invites foreign intervention by China, the United States, and other powers to assert their own national interests.
Brunei offers a different course. ASEAN diplomacy focused on strengthening the institution while respecting all the members preserves political stability and regional unity. It does sacrifice the cause of Burmese democracy—or at least real democracy—on the altar of stabilizing the security situation through some accommodation that preserves the interests of the military while allowing the return of some non-NLD civilian government. That is, frankly, the price the member states must be willing to pay to protect the continued relevance of the organization.
The solution is not to fall for the liberal and realist arguments calling for the defense of democracy and the imposition of the largest members interests over the rest of the region. The solution is to maintain the collective nature of ASEAN. That processes of finding a consensus is hard, long, painstaking, slow, and arduous. Many will remain dissatisfied—especially anyone who was ever inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi in the 1990s. However, she does not deserve such sympathy—the woman who turned from Nobel Peace Prize winner to defender of genocide is no human rights icon. Nor is she a particularly effective stateswoman as clearly demonstrated by the coup. ASEAN and its member states must look past her plight towards the real issues at stake in Myanmar
While difficult to say, it must be said that the horrendous atrocities in Myanmar are still an internal problem. They are a domestic issue. Thailand’s treatment of Patani Malays, the Philippines treatment of the Moro Muslims, Indonesia’s treatment of Aceh and most of all Myanmar’s genocidal campaign against the Rohingya along with violence committed against dozens of ethnic minorities are all nauseating human rights abuses. Yet ASEAN has always maintained each of those conflicts is a domestic issue—not the purview of the other members other than what is agreed with the offending member state. Without such a principle, the organization would cease to function. The power of any one member would be all but unrestrained without a reciprocal institutional arrangement to encourage dialogue that does not offend any member’s sovereignty.
The situation in Myanmar is really a unique case. All throughout coups and other contested transitions of government within its members, ASEAN has never faced an issue of recognition. Moreover, what makes the coup in Myanmar different from previous violence within the country is the public outcry from the majority Bamar society—ostensibly the majority Buddhist ethnic group the ultranationalist Tatmadaw is obliged to defend. That may be a serious threat to the military administration, but neither the ethnic armies nor the opposition have the firepower to compete with the Burmese military. As others have noted, the situation will only become more dire: the economy will implode, the health system will collapse, and Myanmar will evolve into a truly failed state. But it will still be an ASEAN member that has to be dealt with.
While criticism is understandable, Brunei’s policy is the only way forward for ASEAN. Only through a consensus-based process can the organization maintain its unity over the issue of Myanmar while encouraging a pathway towards deescalating the violence in the country likely through new elections that cement the rule of the military. Such a policy will not save democracy in Myanmar, but it may just save ASEAN and the stability of the region. That consensus-based diplomacy is hard. It is difficult to achieve, frustratingly slow and gradual. Yet Brunei does have the right approach in order to maintain the cohesion of the organization. That is the greater issue at hand.
Where does this leave the current negotiation process?
The situation in Myanmar is complex and multifaceted. However, quiet diplomacy remains the only viable solution if ASEAN is to preserve regional stability and the organization. Clearly, what is required is another leaders’ summit to hammer out these top-level issues. Only the national leaders have the undisputed authority to come to a formal consensus to deal with the crisis. Brunei effectively facilitated that process earlier in the year, there is no reason why it cannot do it again.
Additionally, it would be a mistake for Jakarta to heed the appeals of those demanding Indonesia replace Brunei and take direct action to resolve the crisis. That would split the organization further between the opposing camps on the Myanmar issue. Usurping Brunei’s privileged role as chair also threatens the core principle of equality among the member states. Such is a foundational principle crucial to the ASEAN Way that makes the organization’s existence possible.
Those analysts critical of Brunei who now bandy about the possibility of a solution external to ASEAN are simply irresponsible. Such statements do not consider the gravity of the situation—at a time of great power competition a cohesive and united ASEAN is more important than ever to insulate the member states from becoming pawns in a new Cold War. If the organization collapses in the face of the Myanmar crisis that would be a real catastrophe for all of Southeast Asia.
That does not mean Indonesia has no role to play. On the contrary, Indonesia should use its influence as the largest member state to support the work of Brunei as chair. For one, any criticism of Brunei’s approach should remain private—even circumspect but public critiques only make abundant the divisions within ASEAN. A visit by Foreign Minister Marsudi to Bandar Seri Begawan to demonstrate the fellow member states are on the same page would go a long way towards mending fences and ensuring the mediation process remains on track. That will also require Indonesia to abandon its most ardent demands in favor of a more amenable consensus. But Marsudi can continue her “shuttle diplomacy” and specifically heighten contacts with Thailand as the major advocate for the junta among the remaining members. If Indonesia and Thailand can iron out their major differences, it will not take long for Brunei to form a consensus on Myanmar.
Overall, the ASEAN member states must work together to find a collective, consensus solution to the crisis in Myanmar. It will not be easy. But it is the only viable route towards a settlement that ensures stability in the region. And enduring stability achieved within the framework of ASEAN will guarantee the success of this institution into the future.
Prioritizing regional stability is the paramount goal, but it will require the region to take a pragmatic rather than a moral stand on Myanmar. This is not without risks—many Cambodians still resent ASEAN for offering a lifeline to the Khmer Rouge to oppose Vietnam’s occupation of the country. Many young people in Myanmar will similarly never forgive ASEAN for compromising with the junta in the name of regional stability. But today Cambodia is a relatively stable albeit problematic ASEAN member and Vietnam a thriving one. That is not a result of morality but necessity. The nations of ASEAN, diverse in their politics, religion, ethnicity, economics, and interests can only survive in a world of great power competition through unity—by pursuing the least common denominator in the name of security. Preserving that slow and arduous diplomatic path is the only way to achieve a lasting peace in Southeast Asia.
Moez Hayat is a 2021-2022 Fulbrighter and Visiting Researcher in the Academy of Brunei Studies at the University of Brunei Darussalam (UBD). He completed his Master of Arts in Asian Studies at the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He studies foreign policy and security in the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia and has published in the Diplomat, the East Asia Forum, the National Interest, Modern Diplomacy, and the Australian Outlook. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of the US Fulbright-Hays scholarship program or the UBD.
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