A vacant chair for the Myanmar delegate during a retreat session at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo on May 11, 2023. (Photo: Mast Irham / AFP)

Strategies to Future-Proof ASEAN’s Myanmar Response


Moe Thuzar and Lina Alexandra examine possible strategies for the ASEAN Chair to future-proof the regional response to the Myanmar crisis.

Expressions of disappointment and observations of a limp tone by this year’s ASEAN Chair statement were rooted in dashed expectations of Indonesia’s leadership. The 43rd ASEAN Summit is set for September. This means that Indonesia would effectively start handing over its chairmanship to Laos before the former’s chairmanship term officially ends on 31 December. The authors highlighted before the 42nd ASEAN Summit that a future-proofing of ASEAN’s Myanmar response was sorely needed this year; it can be as basic as entrenching Myanmar-related engagement—such as the series of meetings with different Myanmar stakeholders—which Indonesia initiated as its quiet diplomacy approach to the crisis.

The handling of the Myanmar crisis may translate into the ASEAN response becoming a regular item on the regional agenda, but should not be one that overshadows other priority topics for regional integration. The mention of “Myanmar fatigue” during Summit-related discussions is a dangerous signal. While ASEAN is not abandoning Myanmar, the unprecedented nature and extent of the current crisis in Myanmar should not give the impression that the organisation agrees to disagree in its Myanmar response. The term “fatigue” may convey to the State Administration Council (SAC) regime that its stonewalling is wearing ASEAN down in its favour. ASEAN’s external interlocutors, particularly those with some skin in the game in Myanmar, will also gauge ASEAN’s performance and unity of purpose in its response.

The ASEAN Chair’s statement of the 42nd ASEAN Summit and President Joko Widodo’s statement to the media at the Summit’s conclusion, show that ASEAN’s strongest response continues to be restricting the SAC’s attendance at Summits and Foreign Ministers’ Meetings to a non-political representative. Without specifics of when and how this non-political representative criterion would be continued, extended, or revoked, the few ASEAN member states committed to holding the line on this criterion will find it more challenging to continue doing so. For now, the line is drawn at Summit and Foreign Ministers’ Meetings but not other sectors of cooperation such as defence or the economy.

The language of the ASEAN Chair’s statement reflects the extent of negotiated compromise. The commending of “partial delivery” of humanitarian assistance—in SAC-controlled and dominated territory—and the views of some ASEAN Foreign Ministers that this is the only point in the 5PC that is showing “some progress” shows just how bleak the situation is for creating a more conducive humanitarian space that is not politicised. The attack on the humanitarian convoy of officers from the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) which included officials from the Indonesian and Singaporean Embassies in Myanmar illustrates the challenges that confront ASEAN’s attempts to provide humanitarian assistance to Myanmar. ASEAN’s response to the humanitarian impact of Cyclone Mocha adds to the earlier commitments ASEAN made to assist Myanmar for Rohingya repatriation, a regular item on ASEAN’s discussion agenda since 2016.

No non-political representative from Myanmar was at the foreign ministers’ working dinner prior to the 42nd ASEAN Summit. Myanmar nevertheless dominated the discussions. About two-thirds of the points in the leaked executive report of that working dinner were on Myanmar. The report “noted” the call by some ASEAN member states to “bring Myanmar back” to the Summits and foreign ministers’ meetings. These member states observed that “the time for isolation has served its purpose”. This report revealed the extent of divergence among ASEAN members regarding the current modus operandi of engaging (but not accepting) the SAC. The 5PC provides for engaging with the SAC and other stakeholders, but in separate discussions and not at the main table (excluding other stakeholders).

Indonesia has little time left in the remaining months it is Chair to future-proof the regional response to the Myanmar crisis. Still, there are several steps that Indonesia can take.

First, it may be time for Indonesia to consider initiating a “minilateral” track, bringing together like-minded ASEAN members and external powers that have different areas of leverage on Myanmar. The Chair taking charge of a minilateral track within ASEAN will also help to counterbalance moves such as those in the form of bilateral or Track 1.5 meetings which purportedly complement the ASEAN response but in reality represent parallel moves that do not consider ASEAN’s regional interests.

Second, Indonesia can still deliver on the ASEAN Leaders’ call for an implementation plan for the 5PC. The plan should naturally be the result of Indonesia’s ongoing (and extensive) engagement with Myanmar stakeholders and other interlocutors with a stake in a stable Myanmar. The repeated statement that the Myanmar crisis should not hold up ASEAN’s progress conveys a message that ASEAN’s Myanmar response might be treated as another regional responsibility handed from Chair to Chair. Treating the Myanmar crisis on a rotational basis would put ASEAN into a Groundhog Day loop of the same incapacitated moves. The responses to ASEAN from either the SAC or the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) are already becoming predictable. The SAC—with its institutional experience of how ASEAN works—seeks to exploit ASEAN’s divergent views while the NUG places high (and idealistic) expectations on ASEAN. 

Third, Indonesia’s quiet diplomacy approach has shown a different way for ASEAN to engage with all stakeholders. Nonetheless, it needs to future-proof this approach too, with a view towards ensuring that inclusively engaging Myanmar stakeholders will help the development of a forward-looking plan to assist Myanmar’s future. Less “quietness” may be necessary for multi-track diplomacy, especially in interacting with Track 2 institutions and civil society that have presented legitimate concerns and salient recommendations to the policy track since the outset of the coup. 

Fourth, there is a chance for Indonesia to institutionalise the Office of the Special Envoy as an ASEAN mechanism, in which Indonesia can continue its leading role and to which other ASEAN member states can contribute their expertise and support. As of now, the Office of the Special Envoy is ASEAN’s best bet to engage with pro-democracy and ethnic stakeholders openly and objectively. Indonesia’s leading role in institutionalising the Office would allow it to also take the lead in facilitating conversations among Myanmar stakeholders towards NUG’s proposed federal democratic vision.

It is critical for Indonesia’s leadership on ASEAN’s Myanmar response to continue beyond its chairmanship year. Having initiated the ASEAN Leaders Meeting in 2021 to discuss the 5PC with the SAC, Indonesia should own the process and shepherd it, perhaps even beyond the limits of the 5PC. The Track 1.5 meetings and unilateral moves so far in 2023 are warning signs that non-ASEAN frontline states may not wait much longer for ASEAN to act as they seek to protect their individual interests in Myanmar. If that is the case, it would strike a blow to ASEAN’s centrality and relevance.

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. 

Lina Alexandra is the Head of Department of International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies based in Jakarta, Indonesia.