Story Stream
recent articles

Four months after seizing power, Myanmar’s military junta is consolidating its control over the country. The military has killed nearly 1,000 demonstrators and arrested more than 5,000 political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, de facto leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), and Myanmar’s democratically elected president, U Win Myint.

The military’s actions have made a mockery of ASEAN’s “five-point consensus,” reached in April, that called for the cessation of violence and mediation by a special envoy. Instead of moderating its actions, the military carried on with its planned trial of Suu Kyi and continued its violent crackdown.

Many in the international community are now questioning whether ASEAN has a productive role to play in responding to the coup. After all, its policy of non-interference in internal affairs has impeded ASEAN’s response to human rights challenges and threats to democracy throughout the region for a long time. Their response to the coup in Myanmar is no exception.

ASEAN has missed many opportunities to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis in Myanmara. Instead, its actions have often served to legitimize the country’s military rulers.

In April, ASEAN invited Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing to represent Myanmar at its Jakarta summit. In June, it recognized Min Aung Hlaing as “chairman” of the State Administrative Council. ASEAN did so in spite of international pressure to recognize the National Unity Government -- a compilation of former NLD lawmakers forming a viable opposition to the military -- as the legitimate representatives of the country.

ASEAN has also hindered international momentum to carry out punitive actions against Myanmar’s military. In late May, the bloc worked together to water down a UN resolution calling for an arms embargo. When the resolution was finally voted on in the UN General Assembly a month later, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei abstained.

Some member states are more resistant than others, in part likely because of their economic engagement with the country. Outpacing even China, Singapore is Myanmar’s largest source of foreign direct investment. From 2018 to 2020 alone, Singapore invested nearly $4.2 billion into the country.

Previous economic entanglements, in fact, can be used as leverage over Myanmar’s military if only countries like Singapore and Thailand would engage more seriously. The U.S. government should clarify the significant consequences of continuing to do business with individuals and entities affiliated with Myanmar’s military by issuing special guidance regarding current sanctions.

In addition, the U.S. government should make use of Treasury authorities to levy secondary sanctions. Secondary sanctions, including the targeting of correspondent accounts -- such as Myanmar military bank accounts at regional banks in Singapore and Thailand or international bank accounts in the United Kingdom or the European Union -- could be equally valuable in cutting off Myanmar’s military from the international financial system. 

While the preference would be for the United States to undertake coordinated action to hold Myanmar’s military accountable for its role in the coup, ASEAN and even specific ASEAN countries have not stepped up. Even when Washington undertook multilateral sanctions efforts with the EU, the UK, and Canada earlier this year, ASEAN member states were nowhere to be found.

If ASEAN will not work in concert with the U.S., and continues to do business with the Tatmadaw, they may soon find themselves in the crosshairs of international sanctions efforts.

Olivia Enos is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, where Patrick Coe is an intern. The views expressed are the authors’ own.