With ASEAN snub, Myanmar junta signals return to Cold War isolationism

This article is co-published with our partner 9DASHLINE.

As ASEAN has grown increasingly frustrated with the Myanmar military’s lack of progress in ending ongoing violence within the country, the junta has spurned the regional bloc and aligned itself with authoritarian friends in Moscow and Beijing, most recently voicing support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Myanmar’s rejection of ASEAN as well as growing economic and diplomatic isolation under military rule echoes its Cold War policy during the rule of a previous dictator, General Ne Win.

Seeking to maximise autonomy in an era of bipolar competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, Burma’s foreign policy under Ne Win reflected what one Burmese scholar called “negative neutralism for group survival”. According to Maung Maung Gyi, negative neutralism involves an inward-looking, xenophobic worldview, a lack of economic dynamism, and diffidence toward multilateral institutions. Emblematic of this inward turn, Ne Win withdrew Burma from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1979 and violently expelled Indian and Chinese communities living in the country. The military regime advocated strict self-reliance and nationalised key portions of the country’s economy and national resources, stifling private enterprise and individual rights and shuttering universities, which it saw as breeding grounds for resistance.

Today, Myanmar’s military is falling back on its old playbook. Military officials have vowed to “learn to walk with only a few friends”, and insist that they are prepared to weather international isolation and economic sanctions. This inward turn is all the more tragic when compared to the country’s decade of gradual opening to the world between 2011-2021 when its economy grew in leaps and bounds and a generation of young people found access to international media, freedom of expression, and exciting new opportunities. Those dreams are now dashed. While universities are still functioning within the country, students now log onto Zoom classes with audible shelling taking place in the background and with pseudonyms in place of their real names for fear of being targeted for expressing their views.

Both periods of negative neutralism illustrate that the junta has never placed much stock in its political legitimacy — both domestic and external. Indeed, as I have argued with Myanmar scholar Andrea Passeri, the ruling regime’s level of political legitimation directly correlates with its diplomatic proactivity. So, when the junta’s legitimacy plummeted in the wake of the coup, the result is increased self-reliance rather than the more active foreign policy Naypyidaw exhibited following political reforms in 2011.

ASEAN’s failed approach

When Cambodia took over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in late 2021, Prime Minister Hun Sen signalled a volte-face by insisting that the regional bloc should include junta representatives as members of the ASEAN family. A high-profile visit by Hun Sen in January produced no discernible shift in the junta’s attitude toward negotiations following ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus, which was issued in April 2021. Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing immediately undermined the agreement by continuing to reject talks with Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), which the commander-in-chief refers to as a “terrorist organization”. Moreover, Hun Sen’s entreaties to fellow ASEAN members to support his outreach to the regime have met with resistance and undermined regional unity, leading ASEAN to double down on its decision to disinvite junta representatives from the group’s meetings.

The association once again barred the Myanmar military from sending a representative to its 16-17 February Foreign Ministers Meeting in a sign of continuing frustration with the junta’s total lack of progress toward negotiations. In response, the military’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted that “Myanmar will continue to promote constructive cooperation with ASEAN, including with the special envoy, with the understanding that it is Myanmar-owned, Myanmar-led process”. However, the statement added that calls to engage with the NUG were “contrary to the principles of the ASEAN Charter” given it viewed the resistance as “terrorists”.

Military turns to Russia and China

 Disillusioned with the ASEAN process, Myanmar’s military leaders have increasingly looked to Russia and China to support their brutal crackdown on civilian resistance and People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), which have arisen across the country to oppose military rule. Indeed, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has visited Russia at least seven times since 2013, most recently travelling to Moscow in June 2021. Moscow accounted for nearly half of Myanmar’s total arms imports between 2014 and 2019 and is the source for much of the Myanmar Air Force’s hardware, which it has relied on to combat disparate resistance forces as its ground war has faltered. Myanmar is at the forefront of Moscow’s competition with Beijing for influence in Southeast Asia, where China is the largest economic power.

China is Myanmar’s top trading partner and a major investor in infrastructure projects across the country. Many of those projects stalled after the February 2021 coup, which put businesses in jeopardy of international sanctions and attacks by resistance forces. As a result, China has urged the NUG to protect its investments, though there is little guarantee the NUG will be able to do so given its lack of control over myriad PDFs scattered around the country. Min Aung Hlaing has enthusiastically courted Chinese investment and vowed that his regime would prioritise hydropower projects, an oblique nod to Beijing’s major stake in hydroelectric dams in northern Myanmar.

ASEAN on Myanmar’s coup: revisiting Cold War diplomacy on Cambodia

ASEAN has precedent and success in interceding in struggles for diplomatic recognition at the United Nations during the Third Indochina War (1978-1991).

Nevertheless, Myanmar’s economy contracted by nearly 20 per cent in 2021, and foreign investment has ground to a halt due to ongoing instability. French energy giant Total and the United States’ Chevron recently announced their withdrawal from the country, as the European Union and the United States have steadily ratcheted up targeted economic sanctions against the military and its business interests. Yet economic isolation has not led to a diplomatic breakthrough.

While the military has shown no signs of warming to ASEAN’s diplomatic pressure to undertake meaningful political dialogue with the NUG, its ties with Russia and China will be vital for regime survival. Beijing has revealed its frustration with the coup in the past year but appears to have bet on the military holding the upper hand for the time being. In Naypyidaw, the junta knows it needs the support of Moscow and Beijing in the UN Security Council to prevent international action such as an arms embargo, which has failed to pass given their veto powers. As such, issuing a statement of support for the Kremlin’s latest military invasion of Ukraine may be a small price to pay for the loyalty of its authoritarian patrons.

Looking forward, Myanmar’s military leaders have signalled that international sanctions and diplomatic isolation will have little effect on their calculus. At the same time, there is no indication that Min Aung Hlaing will accede to ASEAN’s calls for political dialogue with the elected government, at least not until conditions on the battlefield compel him to consider negotiating. While the NUG has made every effort to engage with international institutions from the UN to ASEAN to advance its cause, the international community’s failure to respond with meaningful action beyond sanctions means that they will have to outlast the despots in Naypyidaw before Myanmar is able to return to an active and vibrant global role.

More on Myanmar

The Centrality of the Civil Disobedience Movement in Myanmar’s Post-Coup Era

Humanitarian work without the recognition of the CDM will provoke public distrust and rejection.

Dispossession, deforestation and deceit in Myanmar

Past attempts to attain palm oil self-sufficiency resulted in widespread extortion and the theft of lands from local communities around the country.

Reflections on the 2021 Myanmar Update in troubled times

...with COVID-19, and a coup, predicting the course of Myanmar’s future may best be put in the hands of the astrologers.