Challenge before Indonesia as ASEAN Chair to Deal with Myanmar Issue
Prof Rajaram Panda

Indonesia assumed the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after in 2023 and hosted its first major meeting of the group’s Foreign Ministers at the ASEAN Secretariat on 3 February 2023 on a slew of issues affecting the region. Based on rotational basis among the 10 member bloc members, this year Indonesia again became Chair of the bloc since last time it held the Chair in 2011. This time, Indonesia is going to confront different kind of challenges, the political crisis in Myanmar, another bloc member, being the key concern. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has formed the office of Special Envoy to Myanmar led by the Foreign Minister mandated by the Five-Point Consensus, a peace plan that all ASEAN members agreed two years ago and Indonesia to implement and help Myanmar during its chairmanship.[1] Indonesia firmly believes that the Five-Point Consensus will be the main platform to help Myanmar exit from the political crisis.

What is this Five-Point Consensus? This is ASEAN’s peace plan for Myanmar agreed on by all 10 leaders in Jakarta in April 2021, two months after the military coup in Myanmar. The military regime has not honoured its part of the peace agreement even after two years have passed. According to this agreement, there is a need for immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue among all parties and appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue and engagement with the envoy, and regional humanitarian assistance, and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.[2] The ASEAN meeting was the first coordinated international effort to ease the crisis in Myanmar. Regrettably it has remained a non-starter as the junta remains unresponsive and atrocities against itss own people continue. Since the finalisation of the consensus agreement, the junta has effectively reneged and ignored the terms of the plan, stating that it would consider implementing them only when the political situation in the country is “stabilised”.

The leaders of the 10-member bloc had the emergency meeting in Jakarta on 24 April 2021. Chaired by then Chair Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, it was also attended by Myanmar junta Chief Min Aung Hlaing. That was the General’s first foreign trip since the 1 February 2021 coup that ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Though Indonesia formed the office of Special Envoy to Myanmar led by its Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi as mandated by the Five-Point Consensus, such a strategy may be too short-sighted to work. This is because since the crisis in Myanmar is too complex, it is extremely difficult for any member holding the Chair of the grouping for only one year to pursue any measure that would lead to the resolution. In fact the Special Envoy need not be from the country of the Chair of the year but of the grouping’s special envoy so that there is continuity in the effort. It is like passing the ball from one Chair to the next. That lacks vision. The previous two preceding Chairs – Cambodia and Brunei – also tried but failed. Even if Indonesia engages with all stakeholders, one year would be too short to find a solution to the crisis. There is also suspicion that some members of the bloc are endorsing the role of the junta and if true the issue gets more complicated.

The truism is that the grouping’s commitment to improving the situation may be sincere but its real clout is limited as it is unable to take a tougher stand against the military regime. Unlike the UN where a member can be suspended through the action of the UN Security Council or even a Commonwealth where a member can be suspended, the ASEAN has no mechanism for definitive suspension, let alone expulsion of a member.

Even after two years of the military coup, humanitarian groups have found it difficult to assess the security situation on the ground, while many of their partners have exited Myanmar. During the past two years since the junta seized power, more than 2,000 pro-democracy civilians have been killed and more than 1.4 million people have been internally displaced, leaving the future of the country’s 54 million people uncertain. The United Nations reported that 70,000 left the country. The UN body has accused the military of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The junta seems to be not bothered that Myanmar remains as one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries prior to the coup. That has turned worse now. With 100 ethnic groups battling against the military and unable to defend their democratic rights, Indonesia with the world’s largest Muslim population and as the bloc’s Chair finds it extremely difficult to execute its humanitarian efforts.

For example, Jakarta-based Dompet Dhuafa (DD), a non-governmental organisation that used to regularly send humanitarian aid to Myanmar has suspended its philanthropic works because of the situation prevailing there.[3] It has pulled out many of its employees from Myanmar because of security issues of its employees, thereby adversely impacting their humanitarian activities. The DD was distributing the aid before the coup through local partners but after the coup unable to do the same. The DD also partnered with a consortium of Indonesian humanitarian agencies supported by the ministry of foreign affairs and the Indonesian embassy in Myanmar to build schools.

It may be recalled that the Tatmadaw, the official name of the armed forces of Myanmar, detained the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the wee hours of 1 February 2021, as it claimed that the country’s election three months earlier was a fraud. The junta sealed off roads around the capital Naypyidaw, shut the international airport and cut off communication lines. General Min Aung Hlaing who seized power and took over the government and declared a year-long state of emergency and pledged to hold an election in a year’s time but that has not happened. But even after two years, elections are a far cry. As a consequence, overseas humanitarian assistance has dried up. The grim situation can be understood from the World Bank estimate that about 40 per cent of Myanmar’s population lies below the poverty line even now. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), about 5.4 million people need access to education, besides food, shelter, access to healthcare and clean water. Ethnic Muslim minority Rohingyas are also being persecuted and as a result they are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries as Bangladesh and Thailand.

Since the coup, the relationship between Indonesia and Myanmar has changed for the worse. There have been certain periods when Myanmar tightened controls for foreigners coming in and out and this included ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries which usually do not need a visa to enter. Anticipating conflict, some Indonesian companies have been advised to withdraw for safety of their workers.

Despite the various difficulties, Indonesia successfully delivered aid to Myanmar in September 2021 through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre). Indonesia sent aid worth $200,000 in the form of KN95 masks, gloves and personal protective equipment (PPE) to help Myanmar fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Indonesia is committed to its obligations despite many odds complying with the Five-Point Consensus and providing humanitarian assistance through the AHC Centre.

In November 2022, ASEAN leaders met in Phnom Penh during an ASEAN summit where they issued a statement indicating that "little progress" has been made in the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus. The lofty theme chosen during Indonesia’s chairmanship “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth” can be rocked if the military junta does not cooperate. Indonesia’s responsibility now becomes bigger. President Joko Widodo has promised to consistently push for the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus. Since Indonesia shall be going to elect a new President in February 2024 and Widodo shall be constitutionally barred for a third term, he would be keen to leave his political footprint if he gets a solution to the Myanmar crisis. The Five-Point Consensus will be the main platform and mechanism of the ASEAN to help Myanmar and Widodo is committed to work for its fruition. Humanitarian aid is one of the issues that Indonesia has prioritised during its Chairmanship.

There are other ways and means aimed at censuring the junta as it refuses to listen to the bloc’s counsel. Indonesia had planned to host the ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) at a tourism conference in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta from 2 to 5 February 2023. The junta’s tourism minister’s name was removed from the list of high-level attendees. Indonesian authorities did not offer an explanation about the exclusion of the junta’s representative. But it needs to be remembered that in November 2022, Widodo had endorsed a proposed ban on Myanmar’s participation in all ASEAN activities beyond major summits. Interestingly, the aim of the ban, which has not been acceded to by the bloc’s other members, was to hold the junta to account for flouting the bloc’s recommended measures to end violence in Myanmar and start the process of restoring democracy.[4]

Instead of inviting the minister, Indonesia invited a “non-political representative”, someone at “the senior political level”. Indonesia justified that like other ASEAN summits, the aim of the ATF is to foster economic integration and cooperation among the 10 member states. Under Indonesia’s chairmanship, ASEAN is expected to take a harder line in holding the Myanmar junta accountable than under the preceding chairmanship of Cambodia in 2022.

This being so and the junta unlikely to relent, some academics raise a larger question, why the West has not helped the democratic opposition comprising many different groups, armies, militias and individuals that have struggled to gain awareness, even for substantial battlefield successes but has given billions in military aid to Ukraine to fight against Russia for its military operation?[5] The view expressed is that while Ukraine has galvanised the international community, junta’s coup in Myanmar trampling human rights of the people has not. The problem in Myanmar is that with Aung San Suu Kyi and other public figures locked up, there is no recognisable public face in Myanmar’s resistance. In contrast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fares much better and there is an increased global awareness about the crisis.

The truism is that Ukraine issue cannot be compared with the problem in Myanmar. While a foreign power is involved in Ukraine, Myanmar’s problem is domestic. Here, geography also matters. In strategic sense, Myanmar’s strategic relevance concerns India, China and some ASEAN countries. In contrast, Ukraine has remained a constant site for strategic competition between the West and Russia. So, the West perceives the Ukraine issue involving a nuclear-armed power as a geopolitical threat and Myanmar does not fit into the same narrative. As a result, though the US alone committed about $50 billion in total assistance to Ukraine in 2022, even the ASEAN bloc was reluctant to provide military support for the resistance fighters. In contrast, the military junta has an accumulation of huge arsenal of weapons purchased from Russia and China and domestically produced ones.

This brings us back to the question of what Indonesia can do to resolve the Myanmar issue during its chairmanship. It needs to be watched if after two years of protests and violence, the junta can still keep its hold on power. As two influential members of the bloc, Malaysia and Indonesia (also the chair for the year) have taken strong position and have openly rebuked the junta and the position of the junta could turn vulnerable soon. International community must back Indonesia to cajole the junta to end violence and restore the democratic process as soon as possible in Myanmar.

Endnortes :

[1]Saifulbahri Ismail and Jalelah Abu Baker, “Indonesia to kick off ASEAN chairmanship with political crisis in Myanmar as priority”, 2 February 2023, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/indonesia-wants-improve-myanmar-political-crisis-asean-chair-3249776?cid=braze-cna_CNA-Morning-Brief_newsletter_03022023_cna
[2]Aqil Haziq Mahmud, “ASEAN leaders reach consensus on 'immediate cessation' of violence in Myanmar”, 24 April 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/asean-myanmar-meeting-consensus-reached-stop-violence-241556
[3]Kiki Siregar and Rashvinjeet S Bedi, “Myanmar coup: Two years on, humanitarian groups have their hands tied as aid efforts grind to a halt”, 1 February 2023, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/myanmar-coup-feb-1-humanitarian-groups-difficulties-3243656
[4] “Myanmar junta participation cancelled at ASEAN tourism meeting”, 2 February 2023, https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/myanmar-junta-participation-cancelled-at-asean-tourism-meeting
[5]Nicholas Farrelly and Adam Simpson, “Commentary: Why has the West given billions in military aid to Ukraine, but virtually ignored Myanmar?”, 31 January 2023, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/myanmar-coup-military-junta-ukraine-war-western-support-weapons-asean-3241191

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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