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Why Southeast Asia Just Can’t Seem to Cut Off Myanmar’s Junta

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Earlier this month, activists urged Indonesian authorities to investigate potential sales by state-owned arms makers to Myanmar via an alleged shell company owned by the son of a junta minister.

The allegation is far from the first or only such case that has shed light on a covert regional trade network funneling crucial resources to the Myanmar junta, which seized power in 2021 and plunged the country into violent civil unrest.

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The coup two years ago drew condemnation from countries across the world, and the United Nations General Assembly passed a non-binding arms embargo prohibiting the supply of weapons to a junta-ruled Myanmar in 2021.

Since then, however, the global community as a whole has been criticized by observers for the little international attention paid to the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. Myanmar’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, which some argue hold the most power to influence the junta through political and economic pressure, have proven particularly disappointing.

Today, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remain among Myanmar’s top trading partners and arms suppliers—just behind China and Russia, fellow pariahs that have long made clear their endorsement of the junta and have strengthened ties with Myanmar since the coup. 

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But while ASEAN countries have officially refused to recognize the legitimacy of the junta and condemned military-led violence in Myanmar, their own governments and companies based in the region have struggled to stop quietly supporting the junta—whether through lucrative business dealings or facilitating the flow of arms—even as the human costs of the civil unrest continue to mount.

Logistical challenges

Only five of the nine ASEAN states (excluding Myanmar) supported the U.N. arms embargo in 2021. But abiding by it, even for countries with presumably the best enforcement and monitoring systems, has proven challenging. 

In May, over 130 Singapore-based companies were identified in a U.N. report as being involved in the flow of arms and related supplies to Myanmar’s military, allegedly shipping $254 million of supplies between February 2021 and December 2022—an amount not far behind the flow from Russia and China. 

“Arms dealers operating out of Singapore are critical to the continued operation of the Myanmar military’s deadly weapons factories,” Thomas Andrews, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said when the report was published. He added that the Myanmar junta and its arms dealers “have figured out how to game the system,” setting up shell companies to circumvent sanctions.

In response to the U.N. report, Singaporean authorities argued that many of the supplies listed were “dual-use” items—including spare parts, computers, medical equipment, and construction material—that can be used in both military and civilian settings. While Singaporean authorities have banned the trade of dual-use items that could potentially be used by the Myanmar military, its foreign minister said that they would need more details on the transactions referenced in the U.N. report to ascertain their connection to weapons production in Myanmar.

But while the wealthy city-state is taking the heat, experts caution that it may represent just the tip of the iceberg of ASEAN’s dealings with the Myanmar junta. “We know Singapore is doing this kind of thing because Singapore … is very transparent. We got the data,” Amara Thiha, a doctoral researcher specializing in Myanmar politics at Peace Research Institute Oslo, tells TIME. “But there may be other countries doing it but we don’t have the data and they don’t have the compliance.”

“Putting a sanction is not an issue,” he adds. Enforcement and monitoring of such a mechanism is the “very expensive” part. 

The technical difficulty in enforcing an arms embargo with a regional neighbor may be partly why all nine ASEAN states (besides Myanmar) originally sought to water down the U.N. General Assembly resolution on Myanmar’s arms trade in May 2021—especially the part calling for “an immediate suspension of the direct and indirect supply, sale or transfer of all weapons and munitions” to Myanmar. ASEAN’s request was ultimately not heeded, and the arms embargo was included in the resolution weeks later. (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam ended up voting yes to the resolution, while Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand abstained).

“It seems to me that ASEAN does not really feel certain that they can fully enforce [the embargo],” says Pinitbhand Paribatra, an associate professor of political science at Thailand’s Thammasat University. 

Political will

The other major reason for ASEAN’s—officially unexplained—attempt to dilute the U.N. resolution has more to do with political considerations, experts say. Torn among a diversity of economic and political interests, as well as the bloc’s longstanding principles of non-interference and non-binding agreements, ASEAN has defaulted to a notoriously soft stance on the Myanmar crisis.

“ASEAN likely felt that if it were to be the main player dealing with the coup leaders, its support for an arms embargo would’ve killed any goodwill it might’ve had with the coup leaders,” Tan See Seng, a research advisor at Singapore-based think tank S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, tells TIME.

Meanwhile, Amara points to the intertwining economic interests linking ASEAN states to Myanmar that would have been impacted by the arms embargo. “A lot of ASEAN countries are trading with Myanmar, both state and non-state actors,” he says, adding that for these ASEAN states, restrictions that may impact trade with Myanmar are “not aligned with their interests.”

Thailand, whose military and business elites have long maintained close personal ties with their Burmese counterparts, has continued collaborating publicly with Myanmar on military operations and energy projects. Meanwhile, MyTel, a mobile carrier jointly launched by the Vietnamese and Myanmar militaries in 2017, remains one of Myanmar’s biggest telecommunications providers.

The result of these uneven economic and political connections with Myanmar have led to a divided ASEAN. 

On one hand, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the unrest in Myanmar, urging stronger measures against the junta. But on the other hand, Thailand and Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, have forged on with “quiet diplomacy” with Myanmar—to limited success. In June, Thailand, under its then-caretaker government led by former military leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, set up informal regional peace talks with the Myanmar junta—only to be snubbed by the more critical ASEAN states.

Amid the cacophony of diplomatic strategies within the bloc, what concerted responses ASEAN has come up with have so far been inevitably weak: the Five-Point Consensus, cobbled together months after the coup, called for, among other things, an end to violence, dialogue among stakeholders, and humanitarian aid to Myanmar. But it has been largely ignored by the junta, even after it initially agreed to the terms.

Lina Alexandra, who heads the international relations department at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, tells TIME that ASEAN needs to move beyond its traditional consensus-based decision-making process. 

“For anything to move in ASEAN, it has to go through consensus by all members. In this Myanmar context, it does not make sense,” she says, since the bloc is now dealing with the very junta that they are trying to curb. 

As violence continues unabated in Myanmar, with the junta repeatedly accused of targeting civilians, ASEAN released a statement in September that “strongly condemned the continued acts of violence in Myanmar.” It was summarily dismissed by the junta as “one-sided.”

Such toothless condemnations by ASEAN have only added to the chagrin of activists concerned about the persisting humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

“ASEAN lacks leadership at the very top,” Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson at Justice For Myanmar, tells TIME. “Their failed collective response to the region's most pressing crisis allows ASEAN governments to continue business as usual with the illegitimate Myanmar military junta.”

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