Before time runs out in this pivotal year for Myanmar and ASEAN, Indonesia must step up as lead conductor of an under-performing orchestra.
The two-year mark of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC) on Myanmar came and went on 24 April 2023. The date is a useful reminder of how the 5PC has floundered in the face of a military regime determined to bend the rules of the game to its will and timing. The State Administration Council (SAC) in Myanmar has not heeded the 5PC’s call for “immediate cessation of violence” – its first and most important point.
Atrocities and violence have worsened in Myanmar since the 5PC’s adoption. The deadliest to date is the Myanmar military’s airstrikes on a civilian gathering in Pazigyi village in central Myanmar on 11 April, killing over 160 civilians. The SAC claimed responsibility, justifying it as acting against “terrorists” (a label applied to those resisting military rule). Pazigyi is one of several locations under the parallel National Unity Government’s administrative control.
Indonesia as ASEAN Chair issued a statement that ASEAN “strongly condemned” the Pazigyi bombing. Former UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Ban Ki Moon, who visited Naypyidaw on 23-24 April, echoed this and “stressed the urgency of making progress” on the 5PC and UN Security Council Resolution 2669.
The Chinese Communist Party’s international liaison chief Peng Xiubin met reclusive former military supremo Than Shwe and former President Thein Sein, but not the SAC chief, on 18 April. Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai led a delegation including Thailand’s special envoy on Myanmar Pornpimol Kachalanak, to Naypyidaw on 21 April. On 2 May, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with SAC chief Min Aung Hlaing.
The tenor of the statements and these recent visits by foreign dignitaries, alongside the continued escalation of conflict in Myanmar, suggest that 2023 is viewed as a make-or-break year by those involved in the conflict and by external interlocutors, particularly Myanmar’s neighbours with large economic interests in the country.
That make-or-break imperative should also apply to ASEAN. There is a sense of urgency, with Indonesia at the helm in 2023, to institutionalise regional efforts under the 5PC. As Indonesia has been one of the more vocal ASEAN members on the 2021 coup and aftermath, there were high expectations from the start of its ASEAN chairmanship that it would push for more progress. These expectations stem from a desire for Indonesia to succeed as ASEAN Chair on the challenges posed by the 2021 Myanmar coup.
However, Indonesia has opted for low-key diplomacy, mainly by the head of the Office of the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar, Ambassador Ngurah Swajaya. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has shared that Indonesia is talking to all stakeholders “behind the scenes” while his Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi mentioned an implementation plan for the 5PC, without details. Expectations abound that leaders may unveil the specifics at the upcoming 42nd ASEAN Summit from 9-11 May 2023 in Labuan Bajo. Madam Retno recently confirmed that the Summit’s retreat session would discuss the 5PC and that Indonesia’s efforts continue to focus on engaging with all stakeholders to “try to bridge the difference in positions.”
Indonesia’s muted updates hint at the delicacy of quiet diplomacy but that very quietness invites more questions and speculation. What Indonesia can or cannot accomplish this year will affect actions in 2024 when Laos takes over the ASEAN chairmanship. Attitudes in Laos regarding ASEAN’s Myanmar response over the past two years have raised questions that the Laotians may dilute ASEAN’s efforts when they assume the helm.
The onus is now on Indonesia to future-proof ASEAN’s Myanmar response such that future ASEAN chairs cannot reverse ASEAN’s key decisions on Myanmar unless the SAC shows real progress on the 5PC. This future-proofing will also need to consider how ASEAN responds to and works with complementary efforts outside the official ASEAN aegis. The Track 1.5 neighbours’ meetings on Myanmar held in Thailand on 13 March and India in late April professed a complementary intent but have instead muddied ASEAN’s central convening role. The convenors expressed interest in talking to “the NUG at some point officially”, but have not done so.
Track 1.5 meetings offer a useful platform for threshing out approaches to the Myanmar problem but the recent meetings have caused comment that their intent seems more to “build bridges with the junta rather than foreground the aspirations of the Myanmar people”.
For the present, all eyes are on what may emanate from the ASEAN Summit next week on the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN’s strongest action to date is its continued application of limiting the SAC’s attendance at Summits and foreign ministers’ meetings to that by non-political representatives. However, statements on the Myanmar crisis have become exercises in negotiating divergent positions and interests. Indonesia will need to assert its leadership by pushing for a clear and progressive implementation plan, ideally detailing practical measures, key expected outcomes, and attendant timelines and criteria.
ASEAN’s challenge in 2023 is thus whether it can tune its Myanmar response into a less discordant cacophony of different notes.
Indonesia as ASEAN Chair can also help to push for or support efforts for a change in attitude towards unhampered humanitarian access to communities in Myanmar. ASEAN’s humanitarian assistance coordinating centre has first-hand experience of attempting humanitarian assistance under SAC auspices, which can be an input to the planned Inclusive Humanitarian Forum discussing feasible options involving local networks.
ASEAN, by its own admission, cannot work alone on the Myanmar crisis. Present realities show that even its coordinating role is in danger of being undermined. ASEAN needs to institute regular consultations at Summits or foreign ministers’ meetings with the special envoys and representatives of the UNSG, the EU, and other interested countries. It may also be worthwhile for ASEAN leaders to speak with Mr Ban on his Naypyidaw visit.
The SAC has shown its determination to march to its own beat and pace rather than heed ASEAN and has leveraged bilateral sympathies from neighbouring countries to its advantage. ASEAN’s challenge in 2023 is thus whether it can tune its Myanmar response into a less discordant cacophony of different notes. As others have observed, ASEAN cannot fail its member state Myanmar and its people, nor can it let the SAC drag Myanmar toward failure.
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.