The foreign ministers of Singapore and Indonesia meets to discuss on the crisis in Myanmar.

The foreign ministers of Singapore and Indonesia on Thursday (25 March) backed convening a summit of Asean leaders on Myanmar, saying the region should reach a common standing on the crisis following the country's military coup. (Screengrab: The Straits Times, Youtube)

Jokowi Speaks Out on Myanmar


In response to Myanmar’s coup, the Jokowi administration is reverting to Indonesia’s traditional leadership role in ASEAN.

In a televised speech on 19 March from the presidential palace in Bogor, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo urged the Sultan of Brunei, the current chair of ASEAN, to call a high-level ASEAN meeting to discuss the Myanmar crisis. This was unusual for the president with the moniker “the infrastructure project president” and widely adjudged to have little interest in traditional foreign policy and multilateralism. Why did Jokowi step out of character and speak out on the Myanmar crisis?

Jokowi’s presidential intervention on ASEAN and Myanmar follows his foreign minister’s efforts. Soon after Myanmar’s military ousted Aung San Suu Kyi from power on 1 February, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi expressed Indonesia’s concern. Reminiscent of her predecessor Marty Natalegawa’s successful shuttle diplomacy in 2012 to bridge ASEAN’s South China Sea divisions, Retno started her own “shuttle diplomacy”. On 5 February, she travelled to Brunei and then to Singapore to meet her counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan to discuss the ASEAN strategy on the Myanmar crisis. On 24 February, she shuttled to Bangkok to meet her Thai counterpart and, together with Don Pramudwinai, met the junta-appointed representative Wunna Maung Lwin to discuss the crisis. 

Retno had planned to shuttle to Naypyitaw itself to meet Wunna Maung Lwin. However, this symbol-laded visit was cancelled after protesters gathered in front of the Indonesian embassy in Yangon accusing Jakarta of backing the junta. These protests followed a 22 February Reuters “exclusive” that many read as Jakarta agreeing with the junta that there should be new elections within a year. Retno insisted that Indonesia’s position was misunderstood. 

Some of these countries are themselves authoritarian or possess an authoritarian tendency and are reluctant to tell Myanmar’s junta to respect democratic practices.

Retno’s shuttling was not in vain. On 2 March, ASEAN held an informal foreign ministers’ meeting that included a discussion of Myanmar. Right after the virtual meeting, Retno warned that if ASEAN failed to respect the ASEAN Charter, ASEAN would be undermined, and that: 

“Respecting the principle of non-interference is a must. I am sure that not a single ASEAN country has the intention of violating this principle. At the same time, upholding and implementing the values of democracy, respect for human rights, good governance, the rule of law and constitutional government is equally important”. 

She noted that the parties concerned should commence dialogue and resolve their differences peacefully. Jakarta would like to look for a practical way to hold the junta to its promise of holding a free and fair election. Indonesia’s pro-dialogue position differs from the demand of many Western countries (and protestors in Myanmar) for Aung San Suu Kyi’s immediate return to power. 

Within ASEAN, only Malaysia and Singapore held a similar view then. Brunei expressed its “deep concern” and Vietnam stated that both sides should refrain from violence. Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand stated that the coup was Myanmar’s internal affair, though the Philippines has changed tack and urged restraint. Some of these countries are themselves authoritarian or possess an authoritarian tendency and are reluctant to tell Myanmar’s junta to respect democratic practices. 

Within Indonesia, elite views on the appropriate response to the Myanmar coup are similarly divided. Some think that Jakarta should not “intervene” in Myanmar’s internal affair. Others agree with Retno and Jokowi that if Jakarta and ASEAN do not act quickly, ASEAN would lose its credibility and hence centrality. 

Jokowi may have several reasons to follow up on Retno’s stalled efforts and call for a high-level ASEAN meeting:

  • Jokowi may have a desire to be seen as a strong leader in Southeast Asia and ASEAN. One Indonesian academic opined that this is Jokowi’s last term as President and he did not want to be known as a “lesser president than his predecessor”, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who focused on traditional foreign policy and multilateralism;  
  • It is important for Indonesian foreign policy not to be seen as leaning towards China, and China and Russia are widely seen to be pro-junta; and
  •  It is possible that as Jokowi has been accused of being authoritarian by his domestic opponents, he would like to show them that he values democracy. 

Indonesia’s position accepts that the military is not only a part of the problem but also a part of any resolution to the crisis. Jokowi knows that it will be difficult to unify ASEAN on a common approach to the crisis and to persuade the junta to compromise at the moment. Perhaps, he and Retno hope that the situation in Myanmar is different than in 1988 when the Myanmar military also rejected by force an electoral defeat and that this time junta would eventually accept that some compromise has to be made to resolve the crisis. Time will tell if this hope is realised. 


Leo Suryadinata is Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Professor (Adj.) at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at NTU. He was formerly Director of the Chinese Heritage Centre, NTU.