The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is moving to adopt serious diplomatic measures for solving the turmoil engulfing one of its members, Myanmar.
At an April 24 ad-hoc leaders' summit, the association released a statement by the chair calling for an "immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar," including by the Myanmar military.
Since the military took over in a February coup d'etat, the situation in the country has deteriorated badly, with more than 750 killed. However, the United Nations Security Council's response has been ineffective. The United States and European countries have imposed economic sanctions, but these have proven insufficient to alter the Myanmar military's behavior. Consequently, ASEAN has a major role to play.
The ASEAN chair's statement not only calls for an end to the violence, but also for "constructive dialogue among all parties concerned," and declares an ASEAN special envoy will be sent to Myanmar.
Previously, ASEAN's 10 members had always recognized each other's diverse political systems, and in principle avoided interfering with internal policy matters. But its response to Myanmar is a decision to step into that arena. Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin emphasized that the association cannot ignore a crisis jeopardizing peace and stability in the region. The Myanmar military should accept with all due gravity its neighbors' deep doubts.
But ASEAN cannot handle the problem from just one angle.
Myanmar junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attended the association summit, but representatives of the pro-democratic National Unity Government were not allowed to come. Creating conditions for dialogue is a major task going forward.
The association is hardly presenting a united front, either; some ASEAN members are lukewarm about involvement in Myanmar's affairs. Thailand, the Philippines and Laos only sent their foreign ministers to the meeting.
Meanwhile, not only has the Myanmar military turned its guns on anti-coup protesters, it has also started bombing districts controlled by pro-democratic ethnic minority armed groups. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern that the situation in Myanmar will descend into devastating civil war, as Syria has.
If suppression continues long term, it will transform Myanmar into a politically and economically stunted "hermit country," the impact of which will be felt across Southeast Asia. As ASEAN is built on regional stability, it bears a heavy responsibility to prevent Myanmar from becoming isolated.
Lastly, to halt Myanmar's slide into chaos, Japan and the international community at large must support ASEAN's efforts.