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Don’t expect regional organizations to rein in coups

Here’s why ASEAN and ECOWAS stumbled after recent coups in Mali and Myanmar.

- July 13, 2021

The United Nations recently condemned coups in Mali in West Africa and Myanmar in Southeast Asia — and called for regional organizations ECOWAS and ASEAN to manage the crises. In May, Mali, a member of the Economic Community of West Africa, experienced its second coup in 18 months. And the civilian government of Myanmar, a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was overthrown in February.

With mounting pressures from the United Nations and the risk of retreat from others in the international community, many countries expect these regional organizations to do more to prevent unconstitutional changes in government. However, our research shows how established organizational cultures and principles temper the ASEAN and ECOWAS responses to the coups — and how that might unintentionally benefit coup leaders.

Myanmar coup tests ASEAN

The coup in Myanmar and violent crackdown by the military junta now in power — and the country’s growing risk of economic and humanitarian catastrophe — are a litmus test for ASEAN. How is the organization handling its most severe challenge in decades? ASEAN’s active response is rather distinct from its response to recent challenges, including the muted response to the 2014 Thai coup, signaling an uneven application of ASEAN’s principles.

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On the day of the coup, ASEAN made a brief statement appealing for “dialogue” and a “return to normalcy,” similar to the organization’s response to the 2014 Thai coup. But a flurry of diplomatic activity then followed, including a March 2 informal ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting, followed by an ad hoc Leaders’ Summit on April 24, convened by Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

The Leaders’ Summit produced an ambitious five-point consensus agreed to by all members, including Myanmar’s military junta. The consensus calls for a cessation of violence, participation in ASEAN-led dialogue and the provision of aid through the AHA Centre, ASEAN’s humanitarian arm. To facilitate these aims, members agreed to appoint a special envoy and visiting ASEAN delegation. But critics were disappointed that the five-point consensus stopped short on human rights protections and the release of political prisoners.

Some observers find the ASEAN response and the leaders’ meeting a success for simply occurring. Others suggest the consensus was uncharacteristically blunt, with some calling it “undue interference.” ASEAN also faced criticism within the region and beyond. To some critics, the diplomatic overtures have provided implicit recognition of the junta government while doing little to halt or stem the violence. And while proposals have been submitted, ASEAN has not appointed the special envoy.

Mali’s ongoing instability challenges ECOWAS credibility

Similarly, the widely condemned May coup in Mali raises questions about ECOWAS’ credibility as a regional organization. ECOWAS purports to have zero tolerance for unconstitutional changes in government, with violations subject to automatic sanction and suspension. However, since 2014, this principle has been applied unevenly.

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For example, in 2017 ECOWAS deployed over 7,000 troops in Gambia to prevent outgoing Gambian President Yahya Jammeh from disrupting the transfer of power to President Adama Barrow. Conversely, ECOWAS did nothing to prevent current Guinean President Alpha Condé from changing the constitution to run for a third term in 2020.

During the August 2020 coup in Mali, ECOWAS intended to pressure coup leaders to reinstate former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. When it became clear that Keïta would not be reinstated by the junta, ECOWAS suspended Mali, closing land and air borders, financial flows and transactions between Mali and other ECOWAS members.

In September 2020, ECOWAS leaders and Mali’s coup leaders agreed to an 18-month, civilian-led transition period, lifting sanctions and Mali’s suspension from ECOWAS on the condition that civilian control remain in place during the transition.

When coup leader and transition Vice President Colonel Assimi Goita arrested transition President Bah N’daw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane in May 2021, ECOWAS again suspended Mali — but this time stopped short of imposing sanctions. At a summit in early June, ECOWAS leaders acknowledged the “positive developments” in Mali as the Malian Constitutional Court named Goita president and installed a civilian prime minister. By choosing not to impose sanctions on Mali, ECOWAS follows a trend of other inconsistent responses to coups across Africa.

Regional organizations are under pressure to create durable solutions

ASEAN and ECOWAS faced regional and global pressure to respond to these coups by upholding democracy and human rights. Each organization seemed poised for meaningful responses, reflecting their professed ability to exclusively manage regional challenges.

However, the ASEAN and ECOWAS responses are shaped by organizational cultures and varied interests. In other words, the aspiration differed from what each organization could offer as a “realistic” approach.

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What’s realistic for an ASEAN response is shaped by varying interests among members, with Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia seeking a more active ASEAN response and many of the region’s more authoritarian states resistant to such moves. Moreover, any response is limited by ASEAN principles of non-interference and consensus, principles largely in conflict with taking on a leading role in promoting or protecting democracy and human rights.

Historically, ASEAN has ceded other principles to uphold non-interference and consensus. In 2021, the organization is attempting an uneasy and perhaps unsuccessful balance, which a number of analysts point out renders decisive action unlikely and risks establishing precedent for other coups.

Within ECOWAS, there has been greater consensus among members on the need to rely on existing rules and principles to respond to the coup in Mali. However, the organizational culture allows for an inconsistent application of these rules. The organization is constrained by members who at times believe the rules do not apply to them, while still claiming to uphold democratic values in the region.

ECOWAS actions in Mali illustrate this persistent tension. The ECOWAS leadership sees a need to use pragmatism and learn from previous interventions to build durable solutions to crises. However, the inconsistent application of rules and principles runs the risk of setting a precedent for coup leaders, who may think they can ascend to power with little consequence.

While ASEAN and ECOWAS are taking a more proactive stance on coups than they have in their respective histories, the reality is that a number of factors continue to mediate the responses of either organization. To date, these restraints appear to leave these regional organizations with few options to stop the killing or stabilize governance in Mali and Myanmar.

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Emmanuel Balogun (@ea_balogun) is an assistant professor of political science at Skidmore College and author of “Convergence and Agency in West Africa: Region-Building in ECOWAS” (Routledge, forthcoming).

Aarie Glas (@a_d_glas) is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University. His research examines practices of conflict management and governance within ASEAN and other regional organizations in the Global South.