On Tuesday, it will be one year after Myanmar’s generals grabbed state power, refusing to accept an election result that gave an overwhelming mandate to civilian leaders led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).

For a year now, the generals have been cracking down on pro-democracy protesters, throwing Suu Kyi and the other NLD leaders behind bars and stepping up combat operations on ethnic rebel groups.

The instability in Myanmar has spilled over to other Southeast Asian countries, particularly in neighboring Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Refugees are fleeing to Myanmar’s borders and Muslim Rohingyas are risking their lives by setting out to sea, drifting to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.

Myanmar’s power grab has become a regional concern. It also threatens the relevance and reputation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Its cohesion as a regional bloc is also at risk as the generals dug in, resisting an Asean roadmap to restore normalcy.

In April 2021, Asean leaders held an emergency meeting in the Indonesian capital and drew up a five-point consensus, including freeing Suu Kyi and all political prisoners, which the generals promised to abide by.

Nine months after the meeting, the generals have not acted on a single provision of the five-point consensus agreement. Asean was forced not to invite Myanmar to an annual summit, the first time since the country of 56 million people joined the regional group in 1997.

The intense rivalry between the United States and China in the region would complicate the problem as both superpowers want to influence the situation in the region.

China is trying to expand its sphere of influence and the United States, on the other hand, wants to keep its dominant role in the region after the collapse of the former Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) in the early 1990s that ended decades of a bipolar world order.

China’s hand in the Myanmar situation was showing when the 2022 Asean chair, Cambodia, tried to make a different approach to engage Myanmar.

Hun Sen wanted Myanmar to take part in meetings. Laos may support Cambodia’s initiatives as both Indo-Chinese countries have been getting huge investments and official development assistance funding from Beijing.

Brunei, Singapore, and the Philippines opposed inviting Myanmar until the generals abided by the five-point consensus agreement. They also wanted the elected civilian leaders to be part of talks to resolve the political crisis.

Brunei’s envoy even wanted a meeting with Suu Kyi but was rebuffed by the generals. No Asean state has officially recognized the generals’ rule. Russia and China are the only countries supporting the generals.

The United Kingdom and most Western countries, including Australia and Canada, have aligned with the United States, imposing sanctions on the generals and businesses with links to the military rulers.

The tug-o-war could damage Asean’s reputation if it takes sides between China and the United States. Asean should keep its driver seat as it navigates through treacherous waters to get to the destination it wants. It should not take a detour. It should not be deterred by roadblocks ahead.

Asean must resist the interference of China and the United States. Asean must not listen to both the United States and China. The two powers should leave Asean to resolve its own problems.

A divided Asean would only create instability in the region as old conflicts and distrust among countries in the region could be resurrected. There are many border problems within Asean states and the South China Sea is a potential conflict area where Asean states are not the only main actors.

The US also cannot allow a big problem in the region to erupt when it is busy defusing tensions in Europe. A conflict with Russia over Ukraine is possible. It certainly does not want to fight on two fronts.

A stable Southeast Asia is important not only for the United States but for China as well as the latter tries to expand its diplomatic and political clout to the Baltics and American hemisphere.

But Asean’s success depends on the cooperation of all its members. What to do with the generals who went astray, putting personal interests ahead of regional cohesion, stability and progress?

It’s a dilemma. But it should not stop Asean from engaging the generals, learning from past experiences. For instance, the Philippines did not stop from engaging Myanmar constructively.

The late foreign secretary Blas Ople did not mince words when he asked Myanmar to free Suu Kyi from house arrest and to take the high road to democracy.

A decade later, Myanmar opened up, allowing Suu Kyi and the NLD to take part and win elections. She was released from house arrest and was allowed to attend Asean summits until the later part of 2020 when the generals saw Suu Kyi and her NLD as a threat to their power.

There’s still hope Myanmar will return to normalcy despite the generals’ intransigence. It will return once the generals believe there are no longer threats to their leadership. It has tried and tasted democracy for a brief period. There’s a chance it could once more return to democracy.