Indonesia’s Presidency of ASEAN: Approach to Crisis in Myanmar
Dr Cchavi Vasisht, Research Associate, VIF

Indonesia is holding the presidency of ASEAN for 2023 during which Indonesia has hosted a series of meetings in July and September. Through various statements, ASEAN has emphasised on the common and shared goals and ASEAN’s role as an epicenter of growth, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, ‘connecting connectivities,’ sub-regional cooperation, development and dialogue with partners, and regional security concerns. However, a clearly divided ASEAN stand is noted when it comes to approaching the problems faced by Myanmar as a result of military takeover. The situation in Myanmar has raised concerns for regional security and as a result, ASEAN has become more conscious of its divided approach towards Myanmar in the past few months. The article attempts to evaluate ASEAN’s approach in addressing the crisis in Myanmar under Indonesia’s leadership.

After the military takeover, ASEAN adopted the Five Point Consensus (FPC) in April 2021. Brunei and Cambodia acted as chairs for the year 2021 and 2022 respectively. Under Brunei’s chairmanship, for the first time Min Aung Hlaing was not allowed to attend the meetings as Myanmar representative for the 38th and 39th ASEAN summits in October 2021. As Cambodia took over the chair, it engaged with the military leaders to push for the implementation of the FPC. Prak Sokhonn, Cambodian Foreign Minister and ASEAN’s special envoy on Myanmar visited the country twice, March and June 2022. Nevertheless, he cancelled his third announced trip to the country. However, both the envoys were not allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi.[1] It must also be noted that Myanmar was disallowed from attending ASEAN summits only; it continued to attend other lower level meetings. For instance, the Myanmar Police Colonel Zaw Lin Tun along with his delegation attended the 40th ASEANAPOL Conference held in Cambodia.[2] Furthermore, at the 40 and 41 ASEAN Summits held in Cambodia, the members admitted that "little progress" has been made in implementing the FPC, and urged Myanmar's military regime to comply with its commitments.[3]

Indonesia took over chairmanship for the year 2023 and aimed to focus on the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth” during its term. It was believed that Indonesia would help restore democracy in Myanmar as President Widodo stated that Indonesia has the experience as it faced a similar situation and was successful in commencing its democratic journey. Indonesia restricted Myanmar military representatives from attending ASEAN summits in July and September 2023 and also few other meetings such as ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF). However, in a few instances some representatives from Myanmar attended, for instance, a defence attaché from Myanmar attended a five-day ASEAN Solidarity Exercise held in Indonesia in September 2023.

Talking about the 43rd ASEAN Summit held in Indonesia from 05-07 September 2023, ASEAN released a statement condemning the violence and urging the Myanmar military as well as related parties concerned to de-escalate violence and stop targeted attacks on civilians. The statement emphasised that military leaders must ensure implementation of ASEAN’s FPC and engage in “constructive dialogue” with other stakeholders. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi acknowledged the “many difficult circumstances in the region”, such as the Myanmar issues, South China Sea and many more.

Earlier, in July 2023 meetings, a joint communiqué was released which reiterated FPC as ASEAN’s main reference to address the crisis in Myanmar. It expressed appreciation for Indonesia as chair, which took steps to engage in an all inclusive dialogue. It must be noted that as ASEAN chair, Indonesia has also held around 110 meetings (virtual or in-person) with Myanmar’s opposing stakeholders, such as the National Unity Government (NUG), its People’s Defence Force (PDF) and allied ethnic armed organisations. Among ASEAN member states, Malaysia was the first country to hold talks with NUG representatives.

However, it was during July 2023 meetings that Thailand briefed the ASEAN members of its efforts in engaging with Myanmar military leaders. Thailand also stated about its meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi which came as a shock for other members. To date, none of the special envoys from ASEAN were allowed to meet her in prison. It must be noted that the appointment of a special envoy and visit to Myanmar and meeting with all parties is part of the FPC. In response to the statements released after both the summits (July and September), the Myanmar military rejected them as “one-sided.” They clarified that they could not implement FPC due to the pandemic and ongoing attacks from the opposing parties.

During the latest round of meetings in September 2023, ASEAN leaders took some important steps to work towards resolving the crisis in Myanmar. Marsudi announced that as Laos is headed to take up ASEAN’s presidency for 2024, for the Myanmar issue solely, a “troika” of states would lead the bloc. As Laos is going to be the next chair, so Laos along with the preceding chair, Indonesia and the succeeding chair, Malaysia, would work together for implementation of FPC in Myanmar. This would help the bloc function in a collective way. Few scholars have also pointed out that since Laos is heavily dependent on China for trade and investments, the troika system would also reduce China’s undue influence over Laos and the functioning of ASEAN. Additionally, it was decided that Myanmar will not hold ASEAN’s presidency for the year 2026, and instead the Philippines will now be the chair in 2026. This however also means that the ASEAN leaders have an understanding that the conflict in the country is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

Here, one must also look at the responses by other ASEAN member states as well. While Malaysia and Singapore supported Indonesia’s approach and demanded restoration of democracy in the country, Thailand, in contrast, has worked outside the ASEAN framework. As stated earlier, Thailand took bilateral measures as it engaged with the Myanmar military representatives and even visited the country. The meeting of Don Pramudwinai with Aung San Su Kyi which was disclosed during ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in July 2023 raised concerns within ASEAN as none of the earlier ASEAN special envoys or any international diplomat was allowed to meet Suu Kyi. Thailand also hosted informal meetings/consultative dialogues in December 2022 and June 2023. These talks included representatives from Myanmar along with Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.[4] But Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines declined invitations to the meeting.

In this backdrop, ASEAN has been criticised for failing to push the Myanmar military in restoring democracy and ceasing violence. At the ASEAN’s 55th anniversary, Amnesty International urged ASEAN to acknowledge the failure of its five-point plan and increasing human rights violations by the military in Myanmar.[5] While a renewed push to bring about reforms within ASEAN is being pursued, Human Rights Watch expressed “huge disappointment”, stating that ASEAN had remained committed to the stalled consensus.[6] Further, NGO Fortify Rights, noted that the ASEAN should scrap the “five-point consensus” on Myanmar and enact emergency measures such as forming an agreement on protecting Myanmar refugees, authorising cross-border humanitarian aid, and deprive the Myanmar military of weapons, aviation fuel, revenue, and political
recognition.[7]

Therefore, to address the crisis, a divided ASEAN is only going to complicate the situation further and give mixed signals in dealing with military generals. While Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore have called for the restoration of the democratic process the rest have continued engagements with the military generals which gives them certain legitimacy to continue with their own tactics. While one cannot bring back normalcy by isolating the country, one needs a comprehensive approach to ensure an inclusive dialogue. The military leaders in Myanmar must be pushed for a consultative dialogue with all stakeholders, especially the NUG and major EAOs, so that peace and stability can be restored.

The Myanmar military leaders have also stated that the elections will be held after the completion of the national census, which is expected to be completed by 2025, and therefore it is being visualised that the elections might now be conducted in 2026. This further raises the concerns regarding whether there will be cessation of violence or the civilians would continue to be in a state of conflict and violence till then. Additionally, al there are also concerns that the elections, if held after years of fighting and violence would be inclusive or not. Further, as the crisis continues to displace millions of people, humanitarian efforts must continue to reach the civilians who are in need.

Finally, ASEAN must continue with its efforts to ensure implementation of FPC as it has reaffirmed it as the main reference to address the political crisis in Myanmar. The ASEAN Charter, which came in force in 2008, obligates ASEAN members to politically commit to “principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance”, “respect, protection and promotion of human rights”, and “peace-oriented values”. It is essential that ASEAN as a regional organisation collectively addresses the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. An all-inclusive and constructive dialogue with all stakeholders is the need of the hour, which the Myanmar military must ensure under the FPC commitment.

References

[1] https://asianews.network/myanmars-sac-refuses-to-allow-sokhonn-to-meet-aung-san-suu-kyi/
[2] https://www.mizzima.com/article/myanmar-military-attends-19th-asean-military-intelligence-meeting
[3] https://www.vifindia.org/article/2022/july/28/what-lies-ahead-of-the-military-executions-in-myanmar https://asianews.network/asean-five-point-consensus-achieves-little-in-myanmar-hun-sen/
[4] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/myanmar-junta-minister-attend-talks-hosted-by-thailand-key-asean-players-absent-2022-12-22/
[5] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/08/myanmar-asean-approach-requires-a-reboot-to-end-horrific-crimes-by-the-myanmar-military/
[6] https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/the-world-myanmar/myanmar-regime-rebuffs-asean-pressure-to-implement-peace-plan.html
[7] https://www.mizzima.com/article/fortify-rights-asean-five-point-consensus-myanmar-should-be-scrapped


Image Source: https://www.eastasiaforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/2023-05-11T072600Z_1955996098_RC26W0AWDGWG_RTRMADP_3_ASEAN-INDONESIA-1-scaled.jpg

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