An empty seat (L) of Myanmar's Foreign Minister is seen during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' interface meeting with AICHR Representatives as part of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Jakarta on 11 July 2023. (Photo: BAY ISMOYO / POOL / AFP)

A Divided ASEAN Cannot Help Myanmar’s People


Moe Thuzar and Sharon Seah examine ASEAN's latest response to the Myanmar crisis arising from the 56th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.

The 56th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) on 11-12 July 2023 was overshadowed by Thailand’s revelation that days prior to the AMM, its foreign minister had met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned State Counsellor of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government. Outgoing Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai’s clandestine move upstaged Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi’s planned update on Indonesia’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach engaging different Myanmar stakeholders, including the State Administration Council (SAC) regime, during Indonesia’s tenure as ASEAN Chair.

National versus Regional Interests

Several ASEAN member states, in particular mainland Southeast Asia, now seem to view the Myanmar crisis through a narrower lens of national interests. Thailand’s move to initiate meetings on Myanmar is based on the “immediate neighbour” justification – that countries bordering Myanmar bear the most brunt of the spiralling conflict in the country. Compelling as this justification may be, the region would do well to remember that Myanmar’s problems are long-standing and systemic. The 2021 coup has simply exacerbated these problems.

The Track 1.5 meetings that Thailand and India convened in March and April did not consider inviting or openly engaging Myanmar stakeholders other than the SAC. Thailand’s move to elevate discussions to a regional meeting just a few weeks before ASEAN foreign ministers were due to meet in Jakarta for the 56th AMM added to the confusion. Long-time analysts of Myanmar’s political landscape have cautioned that such competing moves would only benefit the SAC rather than help the situation.

The extent of divergence in views among mainland and maritime ASEAN members on the regional response to the Myanmar crisis has become more evident since ASEAN’s unprecedented move to downgrade the SAC’s presence at ASEAN Summits (and later, foreign ministers’ meetings) to a non-political representative. The SAC has cleverly leveraged ASEAN’s divided attitudes to pursue its narrow interests. As a result, cynical pretexts and justifications have emerged among some ASEAN member states to “re-engage” the SAC.

What Has Indonesia’s Quiet Diplomacy Achieved?

Indonesia divulged very little on the substance and involvement of the 110 engagements with Myanmar stakeholders thus far. That nothing specific has been shared indicates the extent of both distrust and mistrust in Myanmar among the various stakeholders. This has also frustrated ASEAN. Madam Retno acknowledged as much when she observed that it was a “very complex exercise” and “not easy at all.” Prior to the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May, she shared that, “differences in positions of stakeholders are wide and deep.”

Nevertheless, Indonesia has defended its quiet diplomacy approach as necessary for building some level of shared agreement for a political solution via an inclusive dialogue. Indonesia’s emphasis on engaging with various stakeholders reflects an understanding that reducing Myanmar’s complex and multidimensional crisis to binaries would only serve to further deepen political divides.

Various Myanmar stakeholders are quietly appreciative of Indonesia’s approach and have expressed a desire to see it continue beyond Indonesia’s chairmanship term. Ambassador Ngurah Swajaya, the Head of the Office of the Special Envoy under Indonesia’s watch had met some of them. Speaking anonymously for security reasons, these stakeholders have shared that Indonesia’s approach in 2023 differed from the previous ASEAN Chairs in that ethnic concerns and views were being considered as relevant elements in an inclusive dialogue. Indeed, many groups and stakeholders apathetic to the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi have been participating in and sustaining the current resistance to the military since the 2021 coup.

Short-Term Gains, Long-Term Pains

In prioritising its own interests above regional interests, Thailand may have succeeded in the short term by spotlighting its diplomatic capabilities and highlighting ASEAN’s incapacity, but to what end and what use is this short-term win at the expense of ASEAN’s unity?

Myanmar is ASEAN’s internal challenge, the most serious one to date, threatening ASEAN centrality. Among ASEAN members, the view is that Myanmar crisis should not hamper ASEAN’s regional integration. Competing narrow domestic interests have added to the internal divisiveness. The actions of one member state going against advice from the other members, notably by the Indonesian Chair calling on her peers to “safeguard existing momentum” to implement the Five-Point Consensus (5PC), is tantamount to taking potshots at ASEAN unity. In fact, the ASEAN Leaders’ Review and Decision on the 5PC in November 2022 had specified that engagement (with Myanmar) should be “primarily undertaken by the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar due to the neutrality that is inherent in his/her mandate”. Thailand’s subsequent actions, starting with the neighbours’ meeting in December 2022, prove to the contrary.

By calling its initiative ‘complementary’ to ASEAN when no prior consultation had taken place, Thailand’s moves run counter to the inclusive consultative approach that Indonesia has taken, and can even be interpreted as a consistent undermining of the ASEAN Chair in a manner not seen during the last two Chairmanships under Brunei and Cambodia.

The pursuit of short-term gains only serves to expose ASEAN’s internal fissures to external parties keen to exploit these cracks for their own ends. ASEAN’s failure in 2012 to issue a joint communique over disagreements on its position on the South China Sea, just before entering negotiations with China on a Code of Conduct, are pains that the group has to bear to this day.

What’s Next?

The 5PC – warts and all – remains the only stick in ASEAN’s possession to impose stricter measures on the SAC. Discarding it would take away ASEAN’s only legitimate means of intervening constructively (and collectively) on the Myanmar crisis. As former Indonesian FM Marty Natalegawa has suggested, there ought to be costs imposed on the SAC for its non-attendance at ASEAN meetings.

Indonesia will now focus on handing over its duties to incoming chair Laos. An institutionalisation of the Office of the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair affords the quiet diplomacy and engagement approach a chance, assuming the next Chair is supportive. A dedicated office to shepherd the process of managing talks about the talks and create a conducive environment for all parties to come to the table is essential. Conducting 110 engagements through the year while managing an active foreign ministry portfolio is commendable but not every ASEAN Chair can pull such a feat. Members of the international community who have expressed support for ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar crisis can surely find the wherewithal to support an institutional process that ensures a consistent momentum.

Editor’s Note:
ASEANFocus+ articles are timely critical insight pieces published by the ASEAN Studies Centre. 

Moe Thuzar is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. 

Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and concurrent Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre and Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She is also editor of Building a New Legal Order for the Oceans.