Guest Column

Myanmar Crisis Among Indonesia’s Challenges as ASEAN Chair

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 4 January 2023

Over the course of 25 years of democratic transformation that followed the Suharto era, whenever Indonesia served as the ASEAN chair, new ideas and plans seemed to mushroom.

The ASEAN Charter and ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) are the latest examples of the ways in which Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, has sought to shape the future of the regional organization, of which Jakarta is one of the founding fathers.

In terms of the ASEAN-led principles and guidelines, ASEAN, under the helm of Indonesia, will, as in the past, aim to improve the organization’s effectiveness and dynamism in managing its own affairs as well as external relations with all great powers. However, this time around, the new chair is facing new challenges caused by seismic shifts in geopolitics and geo-economics from within and abroad.

During the handover ceremony in Phnom Penh in November, Indonesian President Joko Widodo made it crystal clear that he would promote the bloc’s relevancy and maintain Southeast Asia’s position as a hub of economic growth. That explains why Jakarta has come up with the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth”. Jakarta carefully selected the word “Epicentrum” to highlight the quintessential role of ASEAN, which the chair will initiate and undertake for the rest of the year.

To pick up where the predecessor left off, the incoming chair has to manage a whole gamut of ASEAN cooperation issues in all three pillars—political/security, economic and social/culture, not to mention the nitty-gritty stuff that has made ASEAN what it is today.

In the post-pandemic era, ASEAN needs stronger cooperation and commitment to recover from the negative economic impacts and increase the bloc’s resilience to counter whatever future shocks there may be.

At the next ASEAN retreat scheduled for Feb. 3-4, Indonesia will outline the ASEAN agenda and priorities. Fresh from the success of the G20, the Indonesian president’s stature has gone up several notches. As such, Indonesia’s new global profile cannot afford to allow the ASEAN chair to be benign and non-productive. Some observations can be made beforehand as to what the new chair has in store.

The chair’s priorities can be identified as regional health and food security, energy transition, and digital transformation, all of which were highlighted throughout last year. Given the size of Indonesia, continued economic progress and non-disruptive production chains will be essential.

Furthermore, today ASEAN is a non-threatening political and economic space, welcoming all development partners. Such a status quo must be maintained even if the competition among contesting powers will intensify by many folds.

Of late, Indonesia has been bold in proposing new ideas at the High-Level Task Force for the ASEAN Post 2025 vision. At the Kuala Lumpur meeting in September, Jakarta proposed to change the way ASEAN leaders make decisions based on consensus to a majority vote of at least seven members. The idea caused quite a stir among the senior officials drafting the vision. There will be more proposals coming along as the consultative process continues.

For Indonesia’s president, popularly known as Jokowi, the optics and stakes are high as the public this year will also be zeroing in on one important issue—who will succeed him in the 2024 presidential election? Contending parties will begin to search for presidential candidates for next year’s campaign. Therefore, Indonesia has to walk a tightrope to underline his continued leadership and maintain his political legacy vis-a-vis other matters that might rear their ugly heads.

Beyond the inter-ASEAN related issues, and just as it did the outgoing chairs Brunei and Cambodia, various issues such as the Myanmar crisis, the South China Sea conflict, Ukraine, and the Korean Peninsula, among others, will also be discussed.

But the quagmire in Myanmar will continue to haunt the incoming chair. Given its geographical distance from the hotspot and its previous strong positions against the military junta in Naypyitaw, Jakarta will certainly adopt a more moderate position on the issue now that it occupies the chair.

It does not mean that Indonesia will shy away from further engagement, but it will tackle the Myanmar crisis with prudence and in a different way from the previous two chairs. For instance, Jokowi will not visit Myanmar and meet with the junta leaders under any circumstances unless there is “substantial progress” in the implementation of the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus (5PC).

For the past two years, ASEAN has been seeking to enforce its 5PC, which was agreed upon in April 2021. At that time, the bloc’s top priorities were an immediate ceasefire and the delivery of necessary humanitarian assistance. For the time being, these two objectives have made little progress due to the ongoing fighting in various parts of Myanmar.

Overall, the war between the junta and the resistance forces, including the People’s Defense Force (PDF), has intensified, as have the civilian casualties. Fighting among ethnic groups and with the central government has been ongoing since 1948 when Myanmar (then Burma) gained independence. Unless these stakeholders express a readiness to negotiate, it would be difficult for ASEAN process to proceed. They must hold a dialogue among themselves on their common future.

As such, there could be some refocusing of the 5PC to kick off an inclusive political dialogue instead of treating the conflicts among various stakeholders as a zero-sum game. Indonesia hopes to seek indirect or direct engagement with every conflicting party. During the ASEAN summit, the leaders agreed that new approaches should be explored to resolve Myanmar’s crisis.

But at the moment, high levels of civilian casualties cast a dark cloud over the idea of dialogue. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, to date, the regime has killed a total of 2,273 civilians and arrested more than 15,400. Civilian casualties have also been caused by the PDF, armed ethnic groups and local militias, but no organizations have kept any record.

At all the past meetings between the ASEAN special envoys and the junta, officially known as the State Administration Council (SAC), this issue has been raised. Due to the junta’s continued violence and brutality against its own people, no one is willing to listen. Recently, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution to condemn the regime and called on the SAC to end the violence and release all political prisoners.

Whatever Jakarta plans to do about Myanmar, it will need assistance from member countries that have been directly affected by the conflict. Thailand and Malaysia immediately come to mind. Thailand shares a common border of 2,401 km with Myanmar, which has not yet been demarcated. Thai authorities are nervous every time there are clashes among the numerous ethnic groups and against Naypyitaw, fearing an influx of villagers fleeing across the border.

Meanwhile, each day a few hundred Myanmar villagers are smuggled through natural channels at various places. Local residents fleeing from Myanmar’s North and Northwest regions are congregating along the Thai-Myanmar border. At the February retreat, Bangkok will report the outcome of the Dec. 22 meeting for further deliberation.

Malaysia is another country affected by the Myanmar crisis. More than 300,000 people from Myanmar are living in Malaysia, especially a large group of Muslim Rohingya, who have been discriminated against in Myanmar. During the dry season, hundreds of these refugees flee Myanmar and Bangladesh and risk their lives on the high seas to reach Malaysia.

Constructive ways must be found to jumpstart inclusive political dialogues, especially issues concerning Myanmar’s election set for August. If the poll proceeds as planned, the outcome will not be recognized by the region or the international community. The junta cited electoral irregularity in November 2020 as one of the reasons for seizing power. It would take a collective decision to decide on the electoral process in order to gain recognition.

From Jakarta’s perspective, the priority is to get all stakeholders together to begin a dialogue on issues of concern, but as the conflicting groups are using weapons at present to engage with one another, this is immensely challenging. Moving them to a negotiating table requires both goodwill and good faith from all concerned. For ASEAN, dialogue partners are as important as ever. For any future ceasefire and humanitarian assistance to be effective and sustainable, their cooperation is indispensable.

It remains to be seen how the chair would like to approach the Myanmar crisis. The onus is on Indonesia as to whether the bloc, under the leadership of the biggest and most powerful ASEAN member, can make a breakthrough.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.

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