The Perils of Incoherence: ASEAN, Myanmar and the Avoidable Failures of Human Rights Socialization?

By Davies, Mathew | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2012 | Go to article overview

The Perils of Incoherence: ASEAN, Myanmar and the Avoidable Failures of Human Rights Socialization?


Davies, Mathew, Contemporary Southeast Asia


In 2006 the ASEAN Eminent Persons Group reported that the problem with ASEAN was "not one of a lack of vision, ideas or action plans. The problem is one of ensuring compliance." (1) ASEAN's seeming inability to develop pro-compliance pressure to breathe life into the emerging regional standards it continues to develop is never more evident than in its dealings with Myanmar. Despite framing and then implementing the ASEAN Communities, the ASEAN Charter and now the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), Myanmar has resisted calls for enhanced good governance and democracy. Recent reforms in Myanmar are attributed to internal dynamics and the desire for the new government to win the next election rather than a product of ASEAN engagement. (2) Seeking to explain this enduring failure, scholars have argued either that ASEAN is doing nothing to exert pressure on Myanmar or that its attempts to develop some leverage is doomed to failure. (3) This article takes issue with such arguments and posits that ASEAN has been very active in trying to exert pressure on Myanmar, especially considering the longstanding commitment to non-intervention that ASEAN has displayed. These efforts have not, however, manifested themselves in ways that resemble the approach to enforcement often displayed by other regional organizations, notably the European Union (EU). Instead of courts and commissions sitting in judgement over members, for the past decade ASEAN's efforts have rested on the use of language and public pronouncements aimed at making Myanmar modify its behaviour. Drawing on work which analyses compliance from a conceptual angle, it is possible to understand ASEAN's socialization efforts as resembling rhetorical action within the definition of that term provided by Thomas Risse and utilized by scholars such as Frank Schimmelfennig. (4)

Understanding ASEAN through this conceptual lens promotes new thinking about the organization's ineffectiveness to influence Myanmar. It suggests that ASEAN's adoption of an incoherent set of policies towards Myanmar, simultaneously criticizing and protecting it, has undermined its ability to promote change in Myanmar. This undermining has occurred because ASEAN has failed to critically engage with a key motive behind Myanmar's original desire for membership, namely political cover from external pressures. Further it suggests that ASEAN can correct this shortcoming and become a more effective influence on Myanmar within existing ASEAN and member state preferences to managing regional affairs. Too often it is thought that for ASEAN to become effective there must be a break with the so-called "ASEAN Way" even in its renegotiated form and a commitment to clear regional oversight and some form of court-based enforcement mechanism. This is a deeply impractical suggestion, one that emerges from an all too common interest in contrasting Southeast Asian regionalism negatively with Europe. The conceptual literature on compliance suggests that ASEAN can become a more successful socializing agent by honing its ability to use rhetorical action through a more coherent and integrated political response to Myanmar. This quest for coherence, while clearly difficult, is imaginable within existing ASEAN governance frameworks in a way a full-blown court system is not.

This article begins by examining the way existing literature has framed the failure of ASEAN to act as a socializing agent, both generally and with specific reference to Myanmar. From there the narrative of ASEAN's efforts to influence Myanmar is discussed and framed through the lens of rhetorical action. This provides a platform to discuss the question of incoherence by examining the conflicting messages that ASEAN and its members have presented Myanmar over time. The article closes with a discussion on the possibility and desirability of making ASEAN more coherent and thus a more effective socialization agent.

Existing Approaches to ASEAN as a Socializing Agent

While ASEAN is lauded for helping cement regional peace and security, when it comes to the issue of human rights socialization it is widely considered to be a failure. …

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