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Meanwhile, human rights groups and activists have called on the bloc to impose an arms embargo, targeted economic sanctions on military leaders and junta-linked businesses, to release political detainees, and restore the country’s democratically elected government. They want ASEAN to demand accountability from Min Aung Hlaing at the summit and show the bloc’s intention that it stands with the elected government, not the junta.
But getting the nine ASEAN states (minus Myanmar) to agree to even minimal action — such as agreeing on a framework to address the crisis — will be a tough task.
The extremely diverse bloc is known for a non-intervention policy and its gears grind at a glacial pace — it has taken three months for the members to even hold a meeting on Myanmar.
The states are not beacons of democracy themselves and many are dealing with their own domestic political problems. Thailand, had its own coup in 2014 — the leader of which is now Prime Minister — and recently had to deal with mass pro-democracy protests. Laos is a one party communist state that heavily restricts its citizens’ civil liberties and was ranked 172 out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Vietnam, another ASEAN member state, ranked 175th.
The pandemic has made everything more challenging.
“I don’t think there’s much political will in ASEAN to take on anything that’s more ambitious at this point. Part of it is also particularly unfortunate that all this was happening in the middle of the pandemic. So a lot of the governments are quite distracted,” said Chong.
Still, there are signs some states are determined to put forward a strong front.
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on Twitter that in a phone call with the UN Secretary General he reiterated “Malaysia’s stand that the violence must stop; the political detainees must be released; and an ASEAN rep must be allowed to meet with all parties involved.”
Ultimately, there is debate as to how much Myanmar’s junta would even listen to ASEAN, though Min Aung Hlaing’s presence at the summit suggests he is keen for regional recognition of his rule. ASEAN then, is embarking on a high stakes gamble where it could risk its already shaky reputation by allowing a ruthless dictator to stonewall attempts to resolve the crisis in Myanmar, while giving him the attention and legitimacy he craves.