Q: How do you think of Myanmar’s role in ASEAN?
A: Myanmar was admitted as the ninth member of ASEAN at the 30th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Malaysia on 23 July 1997. In fact, Myanmar was firstly invited to join ASEAN after its inception in 1967, but at that time, Myanmar was one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement and ASEAN was viewed by other Southeast Asian countries as the creation of another Western-backed initiative during the Cold War. Therefore, Myanmar did not accept the invitation to join ASEAN.
Since Myanmar joined the ASEAN, Myanmar has been respecting and complying with the principles and procedures enshrined in the ASEAN Charter. After 17 years of its membership in ASEAN, Myanmar assumed the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014 under the leadership of President U Thein Sein’s Administration. Myanmar successfully hosted over 250 ASEAN-related meetings throughout 2014, including the 24th ASEAN Summit, the 25th ASEAN Summit and the 9th East Asia Summit. It was also a significant year when the ASEAN Community was established through two declarations: the Nay Pyi Taw Declaration on Realization of the ASEAN Community by 2015 and the Nay Pyi Taw Declaration on the ASEAN Community’s Post-2015 Vision.
Myanmar’s success is also the ASEAN’s success. The successful hosting of ASEAN Summits and other meetings showed that Myanmar could manage and conduct international events very well. It is also proving that Myanmar is a responsible, proactive and constructive member of ASEAN. Besides, it is an undeniable fact that Myanmar has the capacity, capabilities, and motivations to assume a greater role in ASEAN.
As one of the member states of ASEAN, Myanmar continues to fulfil its duties and obligations, including actively coordinating for ASEAN-China dialogue relations, and will effectively promote ASEAN’s external relations. Moreover, Myanmar is committed to advancing the ASEAN Community building process and its key initiatives under the three ASEAN Community Blueprints 2025.
Under Myanmar’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 2014, negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) had been able to resume between ASEAN and China, and as the ASEAN Chair, Myanmar skillfully negotiated in issuing Joint Statements which are fair and acceptable for all parties concerned.
Q: Why should the principles of consensus and consultation be maintained in ASEAN?
A: Consensus and consultation are the long-held fundamental principles of ASEAN. These principles are officially enshrined in Article 20 (1) of the ASEAN Charter which clearly mentions that “As a basic principle, decision-making in ASEAN shall be based on consultation and consensus”. Due to our diverse national backgrounds, ASEAN member states adopt consultation and consensus as key principles to ensure equality among member states and prevent the marginalization of any member in major decisions.
The process of reaching consensus involves intensive dialogue, reasoning on matters of common interest, and mutual accommodation. We also call it “The ASEAN Way”, a unique way of problem-solving of ASEAN which includes informality, consultation and consensus-building in decision-making processes. We all can see ASEAN’s consensus principle has largely facilitated ASEAN Unity and brought about relative peace and stability in the region since the end of the Cold War.
Recently, some western scholars and some ASEAN members argue that ASEAN is unable to address emerging challenges effectively and urgently due to its practice of the consensus principle. There are proposals to adopt a majority-vote decision-making mechanism like in the European Union. However, ASEAN’s decision-making practices and its unique integration model are quite different from that of the European Union. Taking a vote or having a majority rule will not mean we can get a better outcome. The majority voting system will only cause division and discord within ASEAN.
It is worth noting that the consensus principle not only helps ASEAN maintain unity but also makes ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners feel comfortable about their participation in the ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit, ASEAN-Plus one Summits, ASEAN Regional Forum, etc. We all need to be reminded that among ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners, there are also major powers which hold different views on many important issues. Consensus principle guarantees that all parties involved in various ASEAN-led platforms, big or small, could be able to discuss contentious issues through consultation and dialogue and in an equal manner. That said, it is still in ASEAN’s best interest to maintain the consensus principle on as many important issues as possible.
However, it is regrettable to have seen that some member states are trying to make decisions and take actions against the consensus principle by creating their own groups within ASEAN to exert undue pressure on other members which are not on their side. These actions have adversely affected ASEAN’s credibility, unity and integrity.
Q: How is the ASEAN unity being challenged without the full participation of all Member States at the ASEAN Summits and Summits with Dialogue Partners?
A: ASEAN Charter is the basic law of ASEAN. ASEAN Summit Meetings are held twice annually, and the Member State holding the ASEAN Chairmanship hosts them. Article 7 of the ASEAN Charter states that “The ASEAN Summit shall comprise the Heads of State or Government of the Member States”. Therefore, it should not be entitled to an “ASEAN Summit” if not all Heads of State or Government of the Member States attend the Summit Meetings or if the seat of one Member State is empty.
Moreover, Articles 2 (a), (e) and (f) of the ASEAN Charter clearly underpin “respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all ASEAN Member States;”, and “non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN Member States;” and “respect for the right of every Member State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion and coercion;”, respectively. In this regard, downgrading the level of a participant from any ASEAN Member State and limiting the role of a participant in discussions and decision-making at the Summits are contrary to the principles, procedures of the ASEAN Charter and the precedent of ASEAN.
However, it is regrettable to have seen that ASEAN’s long-preserved principles have been weakened due to external pressures, foreign interventions and some ASEAN members’ irresponsible actions. Some ASEAN Member States have blatantly breached ASEAN’s basic principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter because they cannot resist external pressures. Such irresponsible decisions and actions to marginalize any Member State at the Summit level put forward by some member states have already affected ASEAN’s efficiency and day-to-day modus operandi.
Nowadays, there have been suggestions from both within and outside of ASEAN that ASEAN is becoming increasingly disunited and there have been obvious implications on the ASEAN Centrality. ASEAN has set many crucial goals and targets that could strengthen ASEAN-led mechanisms, ASEAN-centred regional architecture and community-building efforts. Each of the ASEAN Member States cannot accomplish these objectives alone, but by joining together and cooperating with each other, and thus these goals become easier to attain.
Towards this end, we should promote more trust building, cooperation and dialogue among ourselves with political will. Instead of regionalization and internationalizing the internal affairs with political motivation, finger-pointing and unconstructively criticising one another at ASEAN meetings, we must respect the principle of non-interference and resolve differences through consultation, ASEAN Way and ASEAN Spirit to reach consensus and maintain the ASEAN solidarity and unity.
Q: In the context of evolving geopolitical competitions, how should ASEAN sustain its resilience to external pressures and influence?
A: Geo-strategic uncertainty is another important challenge facing our region. The trend of security alliance building and armaments is concerning to us. The increasing great power competition has raised concerns that some ASEAN Member States might have to take a side.
ASEAN cannot afford to be a main zone of contention among major powers, and thus, member states must avoid being manipulated at the expense of ASEAN Centrality and unity. In this respect, ASEAN needs to exert more efforts to promote ASEAN norms and principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, and ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
We need to practise more practically ASEAN Centrality and neutrality, not just as rhetoric or on paper, in its external engagement by strengthening ASEAN-led mechanisms. Most importantly, ASEAN must stick to the consensus decision-making and policy-making principle instead of trying to propose some disadvantageous principles such as marginalization of an ASEAN member state or the “ASEAN Minus X” formula in political issues.
It hardly sees any gain from foreign interventions by powerful states and organizations. Instead, it used to end up prolonging armed conflicts and disunity among the people of the concerned countries with no hope for peace and stability. The earlier precedents have proven it affirmatively.
As ASEAN has very good relations with all major powers who are contributing to the ASEAN-led mechanisms, ASEAN is in a prime position to turn the trends of competition into the spirit of cooperation while firmly holding ASEAN’s principles, ASEAN Spirit and ASEAN Way.