Last month in Thailand – one of the founding members of the Southeast Asia Nations Association (ASEAN) – a surprising thing happened: a military coup. Or maybe it wasn’t so surprising: After all, depending on how you tally them, the country has seen somewhere in the area of 14 coups since 1933, eight of which happened after the founding of ASEAN on August 8, 1967.
Last month in Thailand – one of the founding members of the Southeast Asia Nations Association (ASEAN) – a surprising thing happened: a military coup. Or maybe it wasn’t so surprising: After all, depending on how you tally them, the country has seen somewhere in the area of 14 coups since 1933, eight of which happened after the founding of ASEAN on August 8, 1967. So what’s the response of its fellow members?
To answer that question, let’s first look back to 1976. Indonesia was ASEAN chair then: With the consensus of then-member countries Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, on February 24 it issued the Declaration of ASEAN Concord. Promoting peace and amity, it also included a guarantee that all member states should exist free from external interference.
Sound good? In principle, yes – but in practice it ended up to be less about sovereignty and more about standing idly by, no matter what goes on.
On October 6 that same year, students and protesters were attacked on the campus of a Bangkok university while demonstrating against the return to the country of an ousted hardline general. The Thammasat University massacre resulted in an official death count of 46, though some say over 100 were killed.
In the aftermath yet another junta took the reins in Thailand. ASEAN, newly minted non-interference pledge in hand, offered no opposition. The next year the military took power in Thailand. Still, fellow members – authoritarian or single-party states all – remained quiet.
In 1998, with Indonesia’s transition to democracy, ASEAN began to talk more about democracy and human rights in the region, especially about humanitarian aid. Nonetheless, it stayed quiet on the 2006 military coup in Thailand: The history of dictatorship made member states hesitant to get involved, and the non-interference pledge, under the guise of promoting sovereignty, offered ideal cover.
The ASEAN Charter, adopted in 2008, expanded ASEAN’s rhetoric on human rights but offered no changes to its core principles of non-interference. Today, ASEAN’s hands-off approach to an event as shocking as the Thammasat massacre still seems the way forward. It’s no surprise then that last month’s bloodless coup drew no ASEAN response – not even a statement.
“I don’t have much faith in ASEAN,” Bertil Lintner, the Swedish writer and journalist, said last week. “It’s a pretty toothless bloc. They can’t interfere in each others’ ‘internal affairs’ and they rule by consensus. So, in reality, nothing gets done.”
During Brunei’s turn in the chair in 2013, and Myanmar’s this year, ASEAN did release a foreign ministers’ statement commenting on the increasingly unstable situation in Thailand. However, it consisted only of a demand to abide by the ASEAN Charter and reaffirmed the ASEAN leaders’ statement issued in Tokyo on December 14, 2013, encouraging Thailand to pursue “dialogue and consultation in a peaceful and democratic manner”.
In their December statement the ASEAN foreign ministers expressed confidence in the resilience of the Thai nation to overcome the present difficulties and stood ready to extend all appropriate support based on the principles provided in its charter. ASEAN’s response in the aftermath of the May 22 military coup d’état – nothing – seems to bely that promise – or perhaps just reinforce how empty it really is.
“We aren’t allowed to voice our opinions of Thailand’s coup while sitting as ASEAN chair. We have already issued our foreign ministers’ statement. ASEAN has been standing by it. But if member countries wanted to respond to Thailand’s coup, we would issue a response drafted through consensus,” said U Aung Htoo, a deputy director general in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ ASEAN Affairs Department.
Despite ASEAN still remaining hushed, Indonesia’s foreign ministry did state its concerns about Thailand’s coup, albeit in a carefully worded manner.
“Without intending to interfere in the internal affairs of Thailand,” Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in a statement, “as part of the ASEAN Community, in particular ASEAN Political and Security Community, and in accordance with the Charter of ASEAN which emphasises adherence to democratic principles and constitutional government, the developments in Thailand merit Indonesia’s and ASEAN’s attention.”
Anindhitya Sasti, media officer for the ASEAN Secretariat, confirmed that ASEAN has not issued a further statement on Thailand because ASEAN’s practice is not to interfere with the domestic affairs of member states.
Such a practice, Mr Lintner said, turns ASEAN into a lame duck.
“In my view, ASEAN is little more than an exclusive golf club,” Mr Lintner said. “They meet and talk and talk some more. So far, ASEAN has not managed to solve even one conflict between member states, or within a member state. ASEAN won’t do anything. They have never done anything before to solve regional or local conflicts.
“There are many regional issues but I don’t think ASEAN is going to tackle any of them. It can’t because of the ‘non-interference’ principle, and the required ‘consensus’.”
Could that change in the future? The ASEAN Charter is now more than five years old, and therefore eligible for review.
U Kyaw Lin Oo, an expert in ASEAN affairs and a coordinator of the ASEAN People’s Forum, said events like Thailand’s coup should motivate a charter overhaul. He said the charter needs to be reviewed so the bloc can resolve the region’s issues, and so that more decision-making authority is given to the country that holds the rotating chair.
“The sitting chair country needs to lead decision-making and all bloc members need to abide by it when complicated issues that threaten peace and stability like a coup are happening. The decision-making should be by vote instead of consensus,” said Ko Kyaw Lin Oo.
As it stands, even if Myanmar wanted to issue a statement with the agreement of eight other countries, it could not if Thailand objected.
Still, U Aung Htoo is hesitant to see ASEAN’s founding principles tossed out. “In my view, both these principles need to exist within ASEAN. We can’t remove them. ASEAN has stayed alive for 47 years because of these principles. Otherwise, ASEAN could not last to the present day,” said U Aung Htoo.
Other ASEAN members seem to agree. During the 24th ASEAN Summit in Nay Pyi Taw on May 10-11, charter review was not discussed. The hesitancy seems to be because of member nations’ concerns about possible threats to sovereignty and the role of government.
Given the military coup in Thailand less than two weeks later, however, it seems ASEAN’s hands-off stance leaves member nations’ sovereignty at the mercy of whatever group can muster enough force to seize it.