Charlie Thame: Myanmar, The Coup, ASEAN, and the Crisis of Multilateralism

The recent coup in Myanmar has wreaked havoc on the lives of Myanmar’s people, as well as the current state of ASEAN. Victims of the coup and external observers have condemned the regional organization for its callous disregard for Myanmar’s fate. This situation brings us to an interview with Charlie Thame, an international relations theorist at Thammasat University’s faculty of political science. 

Apart from all the political conflicts that could have precipitated the surprise coup, what can you add to the causes from an economic development point of view?

This is one of the surprising things about the coup. There did not appear to be a clear economic incentive for it, like we might discern in the case of Thailand: that is, intra-elite competition over the spoils of economic development and growth. You did not have that kind of rationality in Myanmar. With the 2008 constitution, the 2015 election, and the NLD’s rehabilitation of cronies who made obscene wealth through their military connections, for the past five to ten years there appears to have been a tacit agreement in which the military and people who have become very wealthy through their relationship with the military sat back comfortably, kind of hiding behind the scenes and accumulating wealth as the economy expanded while the NLD oversaw this kind of highly constrained, managed transition to democracy. This is why many external observers, myself included, were so surprised when the coup actually happened. Although there were disputes over the election results last year, it seemed likely then, and certainly now, that a coup would be detrimental to the military’s economic interests. So, on the morning of February 1st, everyone was taken by surprise because it appeared the military were shooting themselves in the foot from an economic standpoint. This is a reminder not to be an economic reductionist Marxist! The importance of ideology and personal motivation is probably a better explanation: these aspirations that Min Aung Hlaing has to lead the country either as a president or in another kind of prestigious position were gradually slipping away from him, it seems that may have been on his mind with mandatory retirement approaching: It was now or never. So, I think it was not so much about economic incentives, more about personal ambitions, and probably also nationalist ideology.

From the image of a burnt ASEAN flag being stomped to the ground that garnered a lot of attention on Facebook a few days ago, what does this image mean to you in terms of the region’s current state?

One important aspect of this is that it is a symptom of the crisis of multilateralism, which is very worrying considering the challenges we face as a region, not just in Myanmar but also challenges like climate change, for example. Over the last 50 years or so, the big institutions of global governance, like the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, have been increasingly joined by smaller, more flexible and voluntaristic ones, like ASEAN and numerous others. These minilateral organisations were supposed to complement the big ones, rather than replace them. The whole gamut is really important. They are all supposed to help advance the human condition, as reflected in their lofty rhetoric about peace, security, stability and human rights. But rather than empowering and democratising these multilateral institutions like the UN, by removing the veto power of the P5 and empowering the General Assembly, these organizations have been kept weak and ineffective by great powers, who have used their power to extend their hegemony and abuse them when they want to, like with the second Iraq War. So, instead of a strong, capable UN with teeth, given a mandate to effect substantive changes in Myanmar after February with the weight of the world behind it, we have a stalemate in the P5 and innumerable statements of concern that have been mocked by everyone in Myanmar. 

So, the UN is facing a legitimacy crisis and ASEAN is pushed onto the scene, completely unprepared for the task of resolving this crisis, blinking under the spotlight like a deer in a headlights,  ASEAN doesn’t know what to do. Also, this buck passing from the UN to ASEAN, the perceived obstruction from China and indifference from the US, while people in Myanmar have been calling for the R2P, is very frustrating, especially for those in Myanmar, terrorised by Min Aung Hlaing day and night for the past four months, calling for help. They’ve seen the US and NATO intervene in Iraq, Lybia, Syria, so they ask, why not Myanmar? Passing responsibility around is beyond disappointing. But, what I think is worse than that, is not just that these minilateral organisations are not simply doing nothing, rather they are actually playing into the hands of Min Aun Hliang. Think about the special summit back in April, the recent visit to Naypyidaw by representatives from Brunei, Wunna Maung Lwin joining China’s Lancang Mekong Cooperation meeting last week, all these institutions seem to be enabling the military regime rather than seeking a solution to the crisis. So, ASEAN and all of these institutions are facing an unprecedented legitimacy crisis. This is what is reflected in that image of the ASEAN flag being burnt. It is hard to see how they can come back from this. We are seeing talk in Myanmar from people who want to leave ASEAN: a  Myanmar-exit. 

Following Myanmar’s recent coup, we have seen no meaningful collective action by ASEAN member states to assist in settling the conflict and preserving lives and restoring democracy, which is to be expected given the group’s history of never acting in that fashion. If we approach ASEAN’s regionalization project and the events surrounding the recent coup in Myanmar through the lens of your critical political economy, what do you think has been revealed about ASEAN?

There are several things that have been revealed about ASEAN. For starters, the ASEAN’s rotational leadership has been an obstacle. Brunei is the chairman of Asean in 2021. Yet the country is broadly perceived by others as being a diplomatic lightweight and out of its depth. There was an op-ed in the Jakarta Post this week, reflecting Indonesia’s frustration with Brunei, accusing Brunei of overstepping its mandate in meeting with Min Aung Hlaing last week. There is also still no special envoy due to internal wrangling within the bloc. 

Secondly, we should be careful to avoid the red-herring of ASEAN’s “non-interference”. This is a mantra that has never been absolute.  Instead, for example, someone like Lee Jones has argued that it’s a form of organised hypocrisy. ASEAN states have meddled and interfered in the internal affairs of the other ASEAN states plenty of times: when it suits incumbent regimes to do so. Interventions against communist forces in the Cold war, for example, and in East Timor in 1999. The point is that ASEAN is there to defend a particular social order, not to promote democracy, as is often claimed. That social order in many ASEAN countries is one of military-bureaucratic elites. So, that is something else that has now been revealed, or perhaps recalled. 

Thirdly, and related to the last one, all these vested interests have been exposed again. ASEAN’s dirty laundry is being aired: Vietnam’s business deals with the Tatmadaw when it comes to MyTel, for example, and Singapore’s role as Myanmar’s bank, Thailand’s reliance on natural resources from Myanmar, like natural gas, on which Thailand’s energy security depends. These concerns trump all others, including the rhetoric of ASEAN unity. For all this rhetoric of unity, there’s very little that unites ASEAN, apart from a defensive posture toward great powers, and collaboration to expand markets. This is what ASEAN unity is all about. 

In your newly published article The Economic Corridors Paradigm as Extractivism you have concluded that economic corridors in Southeast Asia  are tools for exploitation and exacerbate class struggle. From this view,  where do you situate Myanmar and the role of ASEAN?

Well, one of the points I make in that article is that these economic corridors facilitate the restructuring of global-regional social relations: the terms of engagement between nation-states, the region, and the global market. In the case of Myanmar, ASEAN has less of a role in this. It’s more at the subregional level of the GMS. So the key players here are China, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Thailand with The Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy, which was quietly resurrected by the NCPO, with a new master plan launched in 2019. So, this is to focus on these three countries in their relations with Myanmar.

 Myanmar shares a border with China, so China has long had critical interests in the country: primarily in natural resources, but increasingly, also in strategic interests in terms of accessing the Indian Ocean, pursued through China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). Japan charged head first into the country after the 2010 elections, which led to massive aid and development assistance commitments, particularly in the border areas of Southeast Myanmar. Thailand has long held interests in resources such as timber and natural gas,  increasingly also in agribusiness, dating back to the 1990s, heightened in the early 2000s with the ACEMCS.

What’s interesting from the perspective of these economic corridors as a way of integrating Myanmar into bilateral and subregional relations I think is how those three countries are now being forced to reassess their relations with Myanmar; do they side with the military, or the people? What happens when people win? Which will occur; it is simply a matter of time. We can see that Sino-Myanmar relations will be particularly affected by this. Japan and Thailand are still trying to hedge their bets, more successfully than China, but are struggling nonetheless. Profits and geopolitics are their primary concerns, with the people of Myanmar coming last.

Since the end of the Indochina wars, regionalization in ASEAN has been viewed as an elitist club focused on trade that fully excludes the people, particularly during periods of domestic turmoil. Why do you think the ASEAN elites are less concerned with internal conflict  since they would impede economic activity? Is it possible that they do so because they can profit economically from conflict?

I think it is not so much that ASEAN states are not concerned about domestic conflicts, they are. They are concerned about domestic conflicts, but only about their own. This has detracted attention from regional leadership. Those traditional leaders of ASEAN like Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore are all MIA, though Indonesia to a lesser extent.

All the talk of building a people-oriented community was a hollow promise made by the Eminent Persons Group in the early 2000s when drafting the 2007 charter. They knew the organisation faced a legitimacy deficit, which it has never been able to surmount.

According to Andrew Hurell, regionalism is to some people understood as an “attempt to reassert political control in the face of increased economic liberalization and globalization” and to some is it rather understood as “a tool of political economy, either reproducing dominant forms of neo-liberal economic governance at the regional level, or serving as a form of resistance to globalization and as a platform where alternative norms and practices can be developed” which of these understanding would you apply for ASEAN or how else would you describe ASEAN’s regionalism?

Regionalism is achieved through regionalisation: the process of becoming a region. We often think about this in terms of high-level political processes such as ASEAN summit meetings, or economic processes such as the AEC. But I think it’s important to highlight alternative approaches to regionalisation in ASEAN, like those transnational connections and solidarity built among civil society through the events like the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum. The Milk Tea Alliance is another example. In the case of the Myanmar coup, it’s been incredible to see all this people-to-people solidarity, from marches and vigils in Thailand, to protests by Indonesians against Min Aung Hlaing’s visit at the special summit back in May. 

A lot of these are led by young people: Generation Z, and women. Which is cause for tremendous hope for the future of the region. I think it’s important to remember that ASEAN heads of state don’t have a monopoly on the process of regionalisation/globalisation, and the notion of this region, as much as they would like.

Do you think that something akin to the Myanmar people’s struggle can ignite collective democratic movements at the regional level?

Absolutely! What we see is force and counterforce, this is dialectic. It is how history progresses. This is one of the reasons why ASEAN heads of states are so petrified of what’s going on and why they are trying to keep a lid on it. If the people in Myanmar succeeded, to what extent might you have a domino effect? 

Perhaps this may serve as a jumping-off point for political activists in the region to form a union or a party in order to accomplish more than simply expressing support on social media?

Social media is a double edged sword: it connects people but it also has shortcomings like Clicktivism, which allows you to express outrage online without the need for organisational work or institution building. The challenge is to use this as a first step toward genuinely realising unity in diversity as a progressive force. How do you do it? To move from online solidarity to institution building? I don’t have those answers; I hope others do.

What do you think are the obstacles to regionalization in Southeast Asia that would put people as priority? 

Restrictions on fundamental freedoms: like freedom of expression and freedom of association. And these are being heightened under Covid. That’s number one. Second, intra-elite maneuverings that aim to stymie the growth of popular forces and political parties seeking to exert influence over state institutions in a more progressive and democratic manner. And, of course, we’re very familiar with that here in Thailand. These states know how to put forward some facade of democracy, just enough for the international community to go along with it. Those sitting at the helms of the ships of state will not relinquish control without a struggle. 

How do you make sense of the reaction of Thai government to the coup?

The military-to-military relationship is interesting to focus on because, as we know, Min Aung Hliagn was taken under Prem’s wing, and we know how close the militaries are. What interests me the most is not what official announcements say, but what happens on the ground in the border areas. I’m not sure which border it was, but one of them had a wanted list of Myanmar activists and trade union leaders posted in Thai not long after the coup. What does this tell me? This tells me about cross-border communication going on at the ground level. 

Former foreign minister Kasit Piromya has suggested after the violence in the wake of the Myanmar coup that It’s time to sort out a new ASEAN, because the rules and roles that were originally intended can’t be done.  What do you think about this?

I think it is interesting to hear that there are people who are willing to push for alternatives to ASEAN. But I think I need to remain skeptical of how far those things can go. In terms of how ASEAN will reform, changes will need to come through the constituent states themselves. What would you say if Thailand had a more progressive government? It might be able to push for better changes, but there are still people like Hun Sen and countries like Singapore and Myanmar. I can’t see ASEAN changing much.

Thai edition: ชาร์ลี เธม: รัฐประหารเมียนมา สะเทือนวิกฤติศรัทธาอาเซียน

อ่านประกอบ: The Economic Corridors Paradigm as Extractivism. Charlie Thame, 2021.

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