(Bloomberg) -- As the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations grapples with its biggest rift in years over how to treat Myanmar’s military regime, one thing is clear: Nobody actually wants the bloc to expel the generals. 

Cambodia, which holds Asean’s rotating chairmanship, delayed a meeting of the group’s top diplomats this week as divisions emerged following Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar earlier this month. On that trip, the Cambodian leader invited Myanmar’s foreign minister to participate in official meetings and met with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, whom Asean last year barred from a regional summit. 

Those moves generated a backlash from other key members, with Malaysia’s foreign minister saying Hun Sen should’ve held consultations before conducting a trip that legitimized the regime. In a phone call with the Cambodian leader last week, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Asean should continue to exclude Myanmar’s leaders from meetings until “significant progress” had been made on a five-point plan to halt violence and hold talks with Aung San Suu Kyi and other deposed leaders. 

Still, for all the hand-wringing, Asean has avoided following the U.S. in placing sanctions on the generals, and hasn’t even broached the topic of expelling Myanmar. Doing so threatens to upset a delicate geopolitical balance in which Asean plays a central role in mitigating the interests of major powers. And a fissure in the region risks destabilizing an area that saw immense bloodshed as competing blocs battled during the Cold War. 

“India, China, the U.S. and Japan will each see downside in such a messy situation,” said Ong Keng Yong, a former Asean secretary-general. “The big guys want Asean to deal with the Myanmar crisis.” 

Just how that will happen remains unclear. Asean last year broke from longstanding norms of avoiding interference into domestic affairs, as international outrage grew over the rising death toll in the wake of a February 2021 coup. Now nearly 1,500 protesters have been killed since the coup, Suu Kyi is facing six years in prison and armed ethnic groups have mobilized against the regime, raising the risk of full-blown civil conflict.

“If the Myanmar junta insists on continuing with its own political agenda, isolation is unlikely to be an effective resolution,” said Kaho Yu, principal Asia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. “It is difficult for Asean, even united, to make sudden progress in resolving the crisis. But consistent engagement is still a way of risk mitigation.”

Despite the criticism of Hun Sen’s approach, his moves received praise from at least one U.S. ally. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi last week commended the Cambodian leader’s visit to Myanmar, the first by a foreign leader since the coup, saying it brought progress toward a cease-fire with armed ethnic groups. 

In response to questions, Myanmar’s top spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun noted that Asean accepted the country in 1997 when it was ruled by a military government that imposed martial law. He said “only three or four countries” had a problem with Myanmar, and hailed Hun Sen’s visit as paving the way to bring peace with ethnic armies. He also accused Myanmar’s detractors in Asean of being influenced by others. 

“If this prolongs, then Asean member states will no longer have power to decide their regional affairs,” Zaw Min Tun said. “Instead, superpowers outside of the region will become too influential and decisive in the future.” 

One big problem for Asean is that Myanmar isn’t alone in rejecting democratic outcomes or tilting the playing field to benefit incumbents. 

Among Southeast Asia’s 10 countries, two are run by military men who staged coups, two are Communist regimes with no elections, two have had ruling parties in power for more than two decades and one is an absolute monarchy. Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are the only democracies that have seen peaceful transfers of power from one party to another in recent years.

The key gripes among governments in Asean that oppose Myanmar are the violent and ham-fisted way in which the generals have dealt with protesters, as well as the fact that Hun Sen didn’t even pretend to consult with other members of the bloc, according to Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s former permanent secretary for foreign affairs. 

“I don’t think we should completely shut the door to the opening he has given us because we got on a high horse without thinking very clearly how we’re going to get off,” he said of Hun Sen. “Whatever is the outcome, there will be a military government of a greater or lesser disguise.”

Booting out Myanmar would also set a precedent that could prompt Asean to unravel in the future, Bilahari added.

“Myanmar is not the only sinner,” he said. “We should’ve then thrown out Thailand a few years ago, and I can’t say there will never be another coup in some other Asean country.”

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