Norm or Necessity? The Non-Interference Principle in ASEAN

By Tram-Anh Nguyen
Cornell International Affairs Review
2016, Vol. 9 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

Founded in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is one of the most prominent intergovernmental organizations in Asia. ASEAN's main achievement has been to unite ten countries in Southeast Asia through shared goals of regional peace and prosperity.i It attributes this success to the "ASEAN Way", of which the principle of non-interference is an integral part.1 Singapore's former Foreign Minister, Shunmugam Jayakumar asserted in 1997 that ASEAN's principle of non-interference in countries' domestic affairs had been "the key factor as to why no military conflict had broken out between any two member states since 1967."2 Since 1997, however, countries outside the region have blamed the non-interference doctrine for ASEAN's ineffectiveness in dealing with regional problems.3 Calls for the adjustment and even abandonment of this norm have been voiced inside and outside the association, but ASEAN has kept the non-interference principle at the core of its diplomacy. In its first charter, signed in 2007, non-interference was retained as ASEAN's bedrock principle despite recommendations it be adjusted by a high-level advisory group of ASEAN's elder statesmen.4

This paper evaluates the importance of the non-interference principle in ASEAN and explains the group's steadfast adherence to it. Although ASEAN has never provided an official definition of this principle, in this paper interference is identified as ASEAN's deliberate attempts to influence the outcome of a conflict in a country without the consent of its government. Based on ASEAN's activities from 1997 to 2007, the paper argues that the non-interference principle does not actually impact ASEAN's decisionmaking about whether to interfere in a domestic conflict. However, the organization retains the principle primarily because it gives nondemocratic members of ASEAN confidence in their immunity to external intervention.

Literature Review

Although ASEAN has never defined the non-interference norm, the organization's key documents and references show that the norm means protection of its members' Westphalian sovereignty. Krasner (1999) defined Westphalian sovereignty as "an institutional arrangement for organizing political life that is based on two principles: territoriality and the exclusion of external actors from domestic authority structures."5 The non-interference norm requires that ASEAN refrain both from criticizing member governments' actions towards their own citizens and from making the domestic political system of states and the political styles of governments a basis for deciding their membership in ASEAN.6

Krasner also discusses two logics of action in international affairs: a logic of expected consequences and a logic of appropriateness.7 A logic of expected consequences views "political action and outcomes, including institutions, as the product of rational calculating behavior designed to maximize a given set of unexplained preferences."8 A logic of appropriateness sees "political action as a product of rules, roles, and identities that stipulate appropriate behavior in given situations."9 The debate over ASEAN's non-interference principle centers on the question of whether its adoption follows a logic of expected consequences or a logic of appropriateness. In other words, scholars still disagree whether ASEAN adheres to the principle because of its practical benefits or because of its virtues.

Acharya (2009) argues that a logic of appropriateness drove ASEAN's founding states to adopt the non-interference principle, although he acknowledges this decision was also partly due to their concerns about regime security and internal stability under threat of communist subversion.10 Given the Southeast Asian states' diversity with regard to size, economic development, ethnicity, socio-cultural heritage and history, ASEAN's founders needed appropriate codes of conduct and norms to help ASEAN countries unite and foster a peaceful political environment.11 In particular, the principle of non-interference "played a crucial role in molding this interaction and compromise" among ASEAN countries.12As non-interference has become "part of the ASEAN identity," ASEAN has adhered to it fairly consistently, even though it inhibited the organization from reacting effectively to regional political crises.13 Many scholarly works assume that ASEAN's non-interference principle is indeed sacrosanct.14

However, a logic of appropriateness cannot explain why ASEAN intervened in the domestic affairs of Cambodia in 1997 or those of Myanmar after 2003. Those aforementioned scholars merely dismiss these cases as exceptions in an otherwise consistent pattern of ASEAN noninterference. They fail to recognize that these were the only post-Cold War political conflicts that occurred in small and weak Southeast Asian states, while all the ones that ASEAN remained silent about related directly to big regional players.

In contrast, other scholars adopt a realist perspective and explain ASEAN's noninterference principle based on a logic of consequences.15 According to this view, ASEAN countries stick to the noninterference principle because it protects member states with illiberal regimes. It can be relaxed on occasion to soothe international criticisms of ASEAN inaction, but overall, the organization's concern for regime security is predominant.16 Khoo and Jones highlight cases where ASEAN countries have interfered in others' internal affairs to argue that the non-interference principle is applied flexibly to best serve certain states' interests.17 However, these scholars' focus on the instances where ASEAN violated its non-interference principle (termed "violation cases" hereafter) overlooks those where it did not (termed "non-violation cases" hereafter). They fail to completely rule out the possibility that these interventions were just exceptions to ASEAN's norm of non-interference.

Overall, existing scholarship fails to offer a systematic analysis of ASEAN's responses to political and security conflicts in the region and their implications for understanding the non-interference principle. Instead, they only provide disconnected examples and anecdotes to support their arguments. This method also makes it difficult to identify patterns in ASEAN's adherence to the noninterference principle over time and across cases.

Assessing ASEAN's noninterference: logic of consequences or logic of appropriateness?

To evaluate ASEAN's adherence to the non-interference norm and its motivations, this paper examines a decade of the organization's responses to prominent internal political-security conflicts. The timeframe for my analysis begins in 1997, when criticisms of the non-interference principle first appeared, and ends in 2007, when ASEAN decided to formalize the principle in its charter.18 Although politicalsecurity conflicts are not the only realm where the non-interference principle is applicable, they are most directly related to governments' concerns about regime security and stability, which many realists argue is the reason for ASEAN's attachment to the principle. The list of conflicts is drawn fro the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset, scholarly articles, and news reports from the NewsBank database. The information on ASEAN's responses is taken from official statements on the ASEAN Secretariat's website and reports in domestic and international media. ASEAN's intervention is defined as its deliberate attempts to influence the outcome of a conflict in a country without the consent of its government. Table 1 presents the conflicts, the parties involved, and whether ASEAN intervened or not.ii, iii

Table 1: Political-Security Conflicts In Southeast Asia 1997-2007

Table 1: Political-Security Conflicts In Southeast Asia 1997-2007

During these ten years, ASEAN only intervened in two cases: the coup in Cambodia (1997) and the political persecution of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar (cases 1 and 6). It is tempting to conclude that these cases are only rare exceptions to the norm. However, closer examination reveals that all cases of non-interference are related directly to the founding members of ASEAN – Thailand (case 7 and 8), Indonesia (case 4 and 5), the Philippines (case 2) and Malaysia (case 3). These countries are also the most advanced economies in the region. In 2002, for instance, Indonesia's GDP comprised 30% of the region's total GDP and was the biggest ASEAN economy.19 Thailand was the second biggest with 19.5% of ASEAN's total GDP, while Malaysia and the Philippines contributed 15.5% and 12.5% of ASEAN's total GDP respectively. In contrast, Cambodia and Myanmar were among the poorest countries in the region. In 2002, Myanmar's GDP was only 1.2% of ASEAN's total GDP while Cambodia was the second poorest state with only 0.66% of ASEAN's total GDP. Moreover, both Myanmar and Cambodia were relatively new members of ASEAN; Cambodia was still applying for the membership when the coup happened.

These two cases of ASEAN interference in the domestic affairs of Myanmar and Cambodia suggest a double standard in adherence to the non-interference principle

These two cases of ASEAN interference in the domestic affairs of Myanmar and Cambodia suggest a double standard in adherence to the non-interference principle: the organization upholds the principle whenever conflicts occur within its powerful members (Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia) are primary parties, but can interfere when they involve its poorer and weaker members. To further assess and analyze this pattern, the following sections examine the two cases of norm violation and then discuss the non-violation ones.

Violation Case #1: Cambodia

In July 1997, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) ousted the First Prime Minister Norodom Ranaridh of the Royalist Party (FUNCINPEC) in national elections. This broke the twoprimeminister government system arranged after the UN-supervised election in 1993.20 The event happened while Cambodia was in the process of applying for ASEAN membership. When the crisis hit, ASEAN initially denied that this internal conflict would affect its decision about whether to admit Cambodia as a member state.21 This was in line with its non-interference principle; according to the principle, ASEAN should not use the domestic political system of a country as grounds to decide its admission into ASEAN.22

However, ASEAN's attitude changed after its major trading partners the United States, the European Union and Japan all pressured it to use its economic leverage to solve the political crisis in Cambodia.23 ASEAN's foreign ministers announced after their ministerial meeting in July 1997 that they had decided to delay Cambodia's entry into ASEAN indefinitely.24 In addition, ASEAN sent a delegation consisting of the Indonesian, Thai, and Philippine Foreign Ministers to Cambodia to mediate a settlement.25

Violation Case #2: Myanmar

A military dictatorship took over the government of Myanmar in 1989.26 The junta refused to convene the parliament and transfer power to the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, despite the NLD's landslide victory in the 1990 national election. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest from 1989 to 1995, and then again from 2000 to 2002, and 2003 to 2007.

Unlike Cambodia, Myanmar was admitted into ASEAN in 1997 despite strong objections by the US and EU due to Myanmar's poor human rights and democracy record.27 With abundant natural resources, Myanmar was a potential engine of economic growth for ASEAN.28 ASEAN did not want to delay Myanmar's entry into ASEAN because it worried that Myanmar might get closer to China as a result.29 ASEAN justified its admission of Myanmar with the concept of "constructive engagement", promising to encourage political liberalization in Myanmar by helping it develop its economy.30 This "constructive engagement", however, proved unsuccessful when the military junta in Myanmar put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for the third time in 2003. After this, the Western powers put more pressure on ASEAN to resolve the issue. The EU boycotted any meeting or cooperation project with ASEAN that Myanmar participated in.31 Washington also stalled free-trade talks with ASEAN to signal its disapproval of Myanmar's political behavior.

Consequently, ASEAN ministers, for the first time, jointly urged Myanmar to release Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD members.32 In 2004, with no progress toward democratization in Myanmar, the US and some EU members, led by the UK, threatened not to attend the 2006 ASEAN Summit chaired by Myanmar unless Myanmar released Ms. Suu Kyi from house arrest.33 Powerful ASEAN members such as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia pressured Myanmar to relinquish its position as chair.34 Arguing that Myanmar's internal affairs carried "implications for the region," ASEAN continued to break the noninterference norm to push for quicker political reforms.35 It sent an envoy headed by the Malaysian Foreign Minister to Myanmar in 2006 to examine Myanmar's progress in improving its human rights conditions.36 ASEAN also publicly urged Myanmar to speed up political reforms and demanded tangible results in what amounted to the strongest statement ASEAN has ever made about the domestic politics of one of its member states.37 When Myanmar's military government suppressed a protest by Buddhist monks, ASEAN foreign ministers openly expressed their horror and urged the junta to exercise restraint.38

Although the conflicts in Myanmar and Cambodia differed in nature and length, ASEAN received tremendous international pressure in both cases to intervene, especially for Myanmar.

Although the conflicts in Myanmar and Cambodia differed in nature and length, ASEAN received tremendous international pressure in both cases to intervene, especially for Myanmar. One can argue that because both countries have abundant natural resources and border many ASEAN countries, ASEAN was particularly concerned about their stability. Nevertheless, ASEAN was reluctant to break the non-interference principle in both cases before it came under significant pressure from its top trade partners. This suggests that international pressure, in addition to the relative power of the states involved, is an important factor in these cases. However, as the following sections show, when ASEAN's powerful members are directly involved, even international pressure cannot force ASEAN to break its golden rule of non-interference.

The flags of ASEAN flying during the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta.

The flags of ASEAN flying during the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta.

The Non-Interference Principle Upheld

To examine the effectiveness of a norm, one not only needs to look for violations, but also to evaluate whether actors would still behave in the same way without the norm.39 I argue that the involvement of powerful states, not the non-interference principle, was the reason why ASEAN refused to interfere in the non-violation cases.

The East Timorese crisis is a telling example. East Timor was Indonesia's colony for more than 30 years. In 1998, in a referendum organized by UN peacekeeping forces, 79.5 percent of East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia.40 Immediately after that, the pro-Indonesian Timorese militia, armed by the Indonesian army, killed approximately 1,200 civilians in East Timor.41 Similar to the conflicts in Cambodia and Myanmar, the East Timorese crisis also attracted much international attention. Its timing (1999) was close to that of Cambodia's coup and was during the period when ASEAN was trying to shore up its standing after the Asian Financial crisis.

However, although the Security Council and the US urged ASEAN to persuade Indonesia to accept external intervention, ASEAN insisted that East Timor was Indonesia's internal affair and maintained the noninterference principle.42 The organization also avoided discussing East Timor in their meetings.43 Only when Indonesia explicitly consented to UN peacekeeping and requested ASEAN countries' participation in these peacekeeping forces did ASEAN members collaborate with the UN.44

Considering that ASEAN interfered in Cambodia and Myanmar's domestic affairs despite initial protests by those two countries' governments, ASEAN's sensitivity to Indonesia's reaction can only be understood in terms of Indonesia's importance in the organization. Not only is Indonesia one of ASEAN's founders, it is also the largest country in Southeast Asia and had the highest GDP in the region in 1999.45 Therefore, ASEAN countries had strong incentives to avoid offending this nation. ASEAN's deference toward Indonesia was apparent even before the crisis. The organization stood by when Indonesia's invasion of East Timor was raised in 1976 at the UN General Assembly.46

Given that ASEAN refused to offend Indonesia despite tremendous international pressure, it is no surprise that ASEAN remained silent regarding the conflicts in Mindanao (Philippines), Aceh (Indonesia), southern Thailand, the political persecution of a former Malaysian deputy prime minister, and the 2006 coup in Thailand. All of these conflicts not only directly involved powerful ASEAN states (Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia) but also generated relatively lesser international pressure on ASEAN. Moreover, as the list of conflicts shows, most of ASEAN's powerful states had to deal with separatism and ethnic tensions in their territories. Thus, it is only logical that they would resist ASEAN's involvement in ethnic conflicts (cases 2, 4, 5 and 7), because they did not want to establish a precedent that would allow future ASEAN inference in their own ethnic conflicts.47

It is no surprise that ASEAN remained silent regarding the conflicts in Mindanao (Philippines), Aceh (Indonesia), southern Thailand, the political persecution of a former Malaysian deputy prime minister, and the 2006 coup in Thailand.

Therefore, even without the non-interference norm, ASEAN would still not have intervened in the non-violation cases, because it feared offending its most powerful members. Together with the two cases of violation in Cambodia and Myanmar, this conclusion strongly suggests that the non-interference norm does not decide whether ASEAN intervenes in a conflict or not. The question, then, is why ASEAN would still kep the noninterference principle.

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