The ASEAN Way and the Burma Case

A constructivist approach

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Ferdinand Frisch (Author)


1. Introduction

In 2007, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had its 40th anniversary and ratified in the same year its first annual charter which adjusted the organization’s principles towards a more rule-based regional community (i.e. in the fields of political/security, economy and social-culture) with increased institutional instruments such as dispute settlements and international law discretionary (see below). Coincidently in the same year, one of the newest members of ASEAN, Myanmar, caused world-wide attention with its brutal crack down of a peaceful monk-led demonstration against the ruling military junta. While these two events happen to happen coincidently, it indicates the huge contradiction and paradoxical circumstances within ASEAN. Especially, since it was not the first time that Myanmar was the reason for internal disputes and anger over the behaviour of one of the organizations members. Moreover, the organisation embarrassed itself due to its inability to deal properly with the problem (see Haacke 2008 and McCarthy 2008). While many authors believe that ASEAN lacks institutional instruments to handle misbehaviour and international law violation by a member state (see Haacke 2003, Tay 1997 or Simon 2008), other author’s see the member state’s perception and own commitment to the organisation as lacking and thus unable to unify in order to establish a common consensus on the issue (see Haacke 2008, McCarthy 2008 or Wah 2007). In order to understand the underlying problematic of the discrepancy between ASEAN and its inability to judge or sanction misbehaviour of member states (and Myanmar is used as the case study in this paper), it is important to justify the papers research motivation first. ASEAN represents the largest and most dedicated regional organisation in Asia. Largest, because all Southeast Asian states are members of the organisation today, as well as three major regional Asian powers such as Japan, China and South Korea within the ASEAN + 3. Most dedicated, because ASEAN is not only an economic trade organisation, but also a regional stability regime (see more below). It is therefore worth to evaluate ASEAN’s actual role in the region as a peace and human rights providing organisation in contrast to the UN effort (see Anthony 2002). While the underlying reason for an ASEAN analysis as a potential regional intergovernmental organization is manifested in the fact that ASEAN comprise a variety of regime types (from democracies to autocratic regimes) and cultures (Muslim, Protestant, Hindu) which dedicated themselves to a set of norms and rules (highly condensed compare to the UN), the problem of the organisations range and institutional accoutrement remains a riddle for scholars. It seems that constructivism approaches offer the strongest explanatory power in order to identify ASEAN’s constitution as well as its abilities (see Haacke 2003 or Nabers 2003).

I therefore raise the following set of questions for my research paper:

How can we analyse ASEAN from a theoretical perspective? Which IR theory offers the most conceiving arguments for the organisation’s evolution and institutional setting? How does the Burma case challenge these institutional and norm settings within ASEAN? Is the organisation doomed to fail or can the Burma case expose positive assumptions about ASEAN’s future?

In the end, what can we theoretically conclude about ASEAN as an intergovernmental organisation? What can we predict for the ASEAN internal reforms which have been initiated?

In order to answer these questions I structured my paper in three coherent steps: First, I will indicate a theoretical basis for an analysis and evaluation of ASEAN. As scholars signified, the constructivism theory offers strong theoretical arguments for ASEAN’s evolution and development. Second, I will use the case study Burma in order to evaluate ASEAN further and expose potential lacking and working institutional arrangements. Moreover, I will use the internal reforms which have been initiated over the years by the organisation itself in order to detect possible misperceptions by its members or fundamental intrinsic problems.

Third and lastly, I will present a conclusion about ASEAN and its role as a regional intergovernmental organisation.

2. ASEAN from a constructivist perspective

In order to identify the most suitable theoretical approach towards an evaluation and analysis of ASEAN as an intergovernmental organisation, we need to demarcate the three major IR theories along actual characteristics of the organisation itself. To begin with the realism theory, it is worth to mention that “the Asia-Pacific region has no hegemon. Instead, political, economic and social networks proliferate” (Simon 2008, p.266). Moreover, the organisation gives every governmental stakeholder a voice, not only the strongest ones. Security issues have become transnational instead of simply hegemonic decision processes. Additionally, ASEAN is not a security alliance in the first place which has the intention to balance major powers in the world.

Another theoretical approach would be the (neo-) liberal theory. The theory states that states form organisations with the purpose of “wealth-gaining” due to economic ties, security assurances or intrinsic benefits (lower tariffs, maritime openings etc.). As a matter of fact, the Asian financial crisis 1997-1998 showed that “neither ASEAN, the ARF, nor the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum were able to cope with financial distress in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia” (Simon 2008, p.266). Moreover, the organisation guaranteed no prevention or immediate solution to the 1999 East Timor crisis. “National interests prevailed in both these challenges to neo-liberalism” (Simon 2008, p.266).

The third theoretical school, constructivism, is concerned with ideas (which can be ideologies, normative beliefs, cause-effect believes or policy prescriptions - see Jackson 2007), norms and identities (which are basically created through interests - see Wendt 1999) which are shared among states, i.e. among member states of international organisations. Those norms and identities are not only shared by the member states in order to maintain its existence and justify its procedure, but also affects outside states in order to suit its behaviour to the organisations norms and ideas. Moreover, the due to the fact that the international system is constructed by ideas, not by material forces (and therefore not necessarily anarchic), the organisation’s existence is justified by its member’s commitment and characteristic. It is the states who give the organisation its sense and purpose, not material or security needs. Aspects like the “ASEAN Way”, which is basically a “moral suasion” (Simon 2007, p. 267) plays into that category, although it did not lead to a suitable “tool” for the Myanmar or Cambodia case. Nevertheless, ASEAN’s ability to bind external powers to its agenda and institutional commitment TAC (Treaty of Amity and Cooperation) in the form of ASEAN + 3 or ASEM shows that the organisation successfully binds outsiders to ASEAN norms.

Thus, I will stick to Haacke’s constructivism approach and thesis which states that “scholars invoking constructivism have thus been able to dominate normative structures at the domestic level have influenced the international relations of states, and how dominant norms in international society have led to changes in domestic politics” (Haacke 2003, p.58). Constructivists are thus in the position to emphasize not only the fact that states do influence the development of international institutions but also that these institutions can influence foreign policy behaviour of member states (see Nabers 2003 p.113). Additionally, constructivists are able to identify why individual states act against the dominant collective understanding (in my case ASEAN as a whole, in Haacke’s case the “ASEAN Way”) and what are the independent variables for an analysis of potential misbehaviour of member states. “Interdependence, common fate and a homogenous culture can in this sense be seen as ´independent variables´, a basis for the instigation of state’s engagements in communicative processes” (Nabers 2003, p.114). Nabers sees thus that “identities and interests are a continuing outcome of interaction, not just an input into the institutional process” (Nabers 2003, p.115). The dependent variable would be therefore, Myanmar’s “diffuse reputation” (quote by Haacke 2003, p.58) which circumscribes the discrepancy of a state’s self-interest and the organisation’s normative values.

When we now look at ASEAN’s evolution and development we have to focus on the organisations shared values, ideas, interests and norms in order to possibly identify later a discrepancy between Myanmar and ASEAN (or even other member states).

ASEAN ’ s origin and evolution

ASEAN was founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Brunei in order to establish a sovereign protectionist organisation in the frame of the Cold-War expansionist movement. Additionally and with respect to Indonesia, the organisation began early with the policy to incline troublesome states in order to commit the country to peaceful relations with the neighbour states. “The norms purveyed by ASEAN in addition to sovereignty protection included the peaceful settlement of disputes via the 1976 TAC, the avoidance of military pacts with one another and frequent consultations to effect a common response to regional problems” (Simon 2008, p.269). Especially the non-interference norm was the most important and also most controversial discussed principle of the organisation. Until the mid 90’s the norm was basically directed (successfully) towards Great Power intervention, but became highly critical with the expanding of more states like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. While the inclusion of these states brought problems with it, the motivation for including these partly highly problematic states were reasoned with the TAC and its assurance that disputes would not escalate into military crises. “…ASEAN has been most successful at the inter-governmental level, at containing open conflict to the point where the expectation of violence in intra-ASEAN relations is so minimal that ASEAN can arguably be called a de facto security community…” (Wah 2007, p.397). Combined with an emphasis on deliberate confidence-building efforts (non-interference principal) and the political decision making by consultation and consensus, ASEAN has accommodated a “soft-interventionist” approach (see Wah 2007, p.397). This diplomatic community has been developed through regional intra-organisational expanding such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) or the East Asian Summit (EAS). These “institutional arms” reflect the “non-threatening nature of this association of small and medium powers, partly the appeal of a region that has successfully managed intra- mural relations and largely on account of structural tensions in the relations among external partners…” Wah 2007, p.398). Thus the three pillars of ASEAN norm building are: security (mainly from outside but also among each member state), economic (here especially the inclusion of NGO’s and domestic industry network creation) and social-cultural (seeking to create a “Gesellschaft”). While these norms and identities are shared by all member states, the organisation has underwent numerous modifications and internal adjustments in order to manifest those values but also to react to domestic problems caused by individual member states.

ASEAN development and its problems ASEAN has been undergoing several modifications it its norms and principles of the last decade. These institutional and normative adjustments were not only directed towards single member states though. They were also initiated to strengthen the organisations integrity from outside influences such as the US supremacy or possible Chinese interference as far as security is concerned. Nevertheless, those adjustments are not flawless, i.e. because they correlate in many cases with the member states self-interests and in the end pose a problem to the constructivist theses.

One of the most important developments within ASEAN is the “ASEAN Way” and its normative tools. The “ASEAN Way” implies certain norms and practices under the TAC, which provides a framework for grouping. The “ASEAN Way” emphasizes the principle of non-interference, the non-use of force, the use of consultations and accommodation as well as the principle of consensus (see Tay 1997, p.256).


Excerpt out of 17 pages


The ASEAN Way and the Burma Case
A constructivist approach
Arizona State University  (School Of Politics And Global Studies)
International Relations of Asia
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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423 KB
ASEAN, Burma, Constructivism, International Organization
Quote paper
Ferdinand Frisch (Author), 2010, The ASEAN Way and the Burma Case, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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