21 May 2024

The coup in Myanmar on February 1st, 2021 has attracted harsh condemnation from the international community, especially from Western countries. In the past year, the military regime, headed by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has committed all kinds of violent acts against its own citizens, many of which defy description. Leaders on the world stage, like those of the US and European Union, have done all they can to punish the military junta. Various sanctions have been put in place to reprimand individuals and enterprises that have something to do with the regime and its crimes against humanity. More are to come in the near future.

One thing the international community has not yet done, however, is to totally sever diplomatic ties with the Tatmadaw, officially known as the State Administrative Council (SAC). In fact, all of Myanmar’s embassies and their ambassadors, except the one at the United Nations, are working as normal on behalf of the new junta. The best-known UN envoy, Kyaw Moe Tun, who was appointed by the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, condemned the coup and urged countries around the world to use “any means necessary” to reverse the military takeover. He is still recognised by the UN.

For now, Myanmar has retained its UN credentials. The global body could do that because, within the UN system, there is a credential committee which assesses each member’s credentials on an annual basis. Its nine members, including the US, Russia, China, the Bahamas, Bhutan, Chile, Namibia, Sierra Leone and Sweden, decided to refer their decision to the 76th UN General Assembly.

In the case of ASEAN, there is no such mechanism. Within the ASEAN charter, adopted in November 2007, there is no provision concerning members’ credentials. In a nutshell, there is no mechanism to withdraw Myanmar’s ASEAN credentials.

One year has elapsed and this issue remains a bone of contention among the other 9 ASEAN members and Myanmar. Since October last year, Myanmar has cited the ASEAN charter as the main source of its legitimacy for staying on the ASEAN circuit, but the decisions by ASEAN foreign ministers were based on Myanmar’s behaviour and its noncompliance. Prior to the ASEAN-related summit meetings in late October, the junta’s Defence Minister was allowed to attend all ASEAN meetings, including the ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting and the ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus. This was unprecedented. Some ASEAN members agreed that it could subsequently serve as a template for Myanmar’s participation.

At the January 5th virtual senior officials meeting, the issue of Myanmar’s representation and credentials came up. Myanmar has made clear to their ASEAN colleagues that it would be unacceptable for any ASEAN member to support any representation of the National Unity Government (NUG) in ASEAN-related meetings. Naypyidaw considers the NUG to be a terrorist group. Likewise, the NUG also treats the SAC as a terrorist group.

Of late, the NUG has gained increased international support, mainly from political leaders in Western countries. Myanmar’s diaspora has also contributed funds and other materials to support all forms of resistance again the SAC. In September, the NUG called for an armed uprising, with the establishment of People’s Defence Forces (PDF). Since then, the PDF has grown, both in terms of numbers and strength. They have managed to inflict damage, including sabotage of public infrastructure and assassination of military leaders and key government supporters.

At the upcoming retreat in Siem Reap in Cambodia on January 19th, it remains to be seen whether the outcome of the Cambodian chair’s recent visit will yield constructive results toward a full implementation of five point consensus. It is clear the ASEAN 9 will not become a true ASEAN 10 again if there is no tangible progress in the next 12 days.