Explainer: Can Southeast Asian diplomacy end crisis in Myanmar?

JAKARTA (Reuters) - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) holds a meeting of foreign ministers on Tuesday to discuss the crisis after Myanmar’s Feb. 1 coup, which will include representation from the military government.

A demonstrator holds an umbrella during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, March 1, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer


The United Nations, United States, European Union, China and Asian powers have all identified ASEAN as a potentially pivotal player in resolving the crisis in Myanmar, which is one of its 10 members.

The group has the unofficial motto “One Family” and tends to stress stability and development above political rights.

Its diverse membership includes Indonesia, the world’s third biggest democracy, but also communist Vietnam and Laos and Brunei, one of the world’s last absolute monarchies.


Several ASEAN diplomats told Reuters the group’s credibility was at stake over Myanmar.

ASEAN has advantages in its standing as the region’s premier multinational forum and its connections to junta members, but its requirement for consensus and principle of non-interference make agreement harder. As a member, Myanmar must agree with any action too.

Critics, including the advocacy group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, say the body has repeatedly failing to tackle human rights abuses in the region.

Diplomats and analysts say the most that might happen in the short-term is the encouragement of dialogue between the junta and its opponents to avoid worse bloodshed.

Longer term, an Indonesian plan for ASEAN to oversee a new election to ensure it is fair and inclusive could allow the junta to step down and put Myanmar back on the course to democracy, its proponents say.

But ousted parliamentarians and protesters have rejected a new election - demanding respect for a ballot last year that was swept by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.


The United States and some Western countries have introduced targeted sanctions on junta leaders and Myanmar’s ousted elected leaders and protesters would happily see more.

But given its structure - and Myanmar’s membership - any sanctions are unlikely from ASEAN.

That said, regional businesses could feel the impact of Western sanctions on military-linked businesses.

While financial centre Singapore, also a close U.S. ally, said it rejected sanctions itself, its central bank also told financial institutions to be vigilant about the risks of dealing with companies or individuals that could be under sanctions by other nations.


Both China and India border Myanmar and have big investments there and links to the military. Their promises of coronavirus vaccines gives them added leverage, diplomats and analysts say.

China has said the priority must be stability and that other countries should avoid interfering in what calls Myanmar’s “internal affairs” to avoid making the situation worse.

Democratic India has not been much tougher in public. At the weekend, its embassy in Myanmar called for dialogue and restraint from both sides after security forces killed at least 18 protesters.

Some analysts say neither China or India is likely to want to take forceful action against the coup-makers - fearful that it could push Myanmar closer to their strategic rival.

Reporting by Tom Allard; Editing by Alex Richardson