As ASEAN chair, Indonesia was ineffective, unimaginative on Myanmar crisis: Analysts

Pizaro Gozali Idrus
As ASEAN chair,  Indonesia was ineffective, unimaginative on Myanmar crisis: Analysts Laos Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone (right) stands with the ASEAN hammer presented to him by Joko Widodo (left), president of outgoing ASEAN chair Indonesia, during the closing ceremony of the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Sept. 7, 2023.
[Willy Kurniawan/Pool/AFP]

The “non-megaphone” diplomacy that Indonesia practiced as the 2023 ASEAN chair was ineffective and unimaginative in leading the Southeast Asian bloc to try and resolve the Myanmar crisis, analysts said.

At the outset many people were looking to Indonesia, the region’s biggest country and a founder of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to be more muscular in its role as this year’s leader of the bloc in dealing with the strife in junta-ruled Myanmar.   

Indonesia’s special envoy to the coup-ridden state last month touted Jakarta’s more than 180 engagements with stakeholders in Myanmar, but one analyst said that Indonesia’s reliance on investments from China – Myanmar’s biggest trade partner – prevented it from pressuring the junta as well as bloc members allied with Beijing to take stricter action.

Indonesia was too weak and timid to press Myanmar’s junta, said Poltak Partogi Nainggolan, a researcher at Jakarta’s National Research and Innovation Agency.

“Dependence on Chinese investment not only limits but also greatly hinders the decisions and action frameworks that Indonesia could actually initiate and implement [as ASEAN chair],” Poltak told BenarNews, adding that the expanding influence of China in Southeast Asia didn’t help either.

Analysts have said there were clear differences among ASEAN’s 10 members on how to handle the crisis in post-coup Myanmar. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore reportedly take a tougher line than pro-China Cambodia and Laos, and Thailand, where the military has a close relationship with the Burmese junta.

“The weakening of ASEAN solidarity, especially among the new members, makes the Myanmar military junta arrogant, disrespectful and continues to violate the agreements that have been reached with ASEAN,” Poltak said.

He was referring to Cambodia, which joined the regional bloc in 1999, and Laos along with Myanmar, which became members in 1997.

The sun sets behind a tree adjacent to participant countries' flags during the 43rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Jakarta , Sept. 7, 2023. [Bay Ismoyo/Pool/AFP]

In May, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that Indonesia had been quietly engaging in diplomacy with both Myanmar’s shadow civilian government, the junta as well as China, India and Thailand in efforts to resolve the Burmese crisis. 

The goal of these engagements was to build trust “with non-megaphone diplomacy,” the top Indonesian diplomat said at the time.

But Indonesia lacked innovation in confronting the Myanmar crisis, by insisting on quiet diplomacy, which did not help the Myanmar junta to respect the chairmanship of ASEAN, Poltak said.

“Without political pressure and solid or complete, consistent and continuous support from all ASEAN members, [and regular] meetings with the military junta … resolving the Myanmar problem is difficult to do,” Poltak said.

“Indonesia’s position has clearly declined, [it is] no longer [seen] as an elder brother and one of the respected and valued founders of ASEAN,” Poltak said.

BenarNews contacted the Indonesian foreign ministry seeking a response to these criticisms, but the ministry declined to comment.

The seat reserved for the head of the delegation of Myanmar is left empty during the opening session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta, Nov. 15, 2023. [Dita Alangkara/Pool/Reuters]

For its part, Indonesia’s Office of the Special Envoy on Myanmar often mentions the numerous meetings it has held during the year with all sides in the Myanmar conflict.

“As chair of ASEAN, Indonesia has conducted over 180 engagements with Myanmar multi-stakeholders, including the SAC, during its chairmanship in 2023,” the office said in a statement Nov. 24, after similar such meetings it held a few days earlier. SAC refers to Myanmar’s State Administrative Council, which is the junta’s formal name.

The statement said it met separately Nov. 20-22 with interlocutors of the Myanmar authority, pro-democracy groups, including the National Unity Government (the parallel civilian administration), and members of ethnic armed groups that have signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement.

The objective, the statement said, was to bring all parties to a dialogue so violence could end.

After these separate meetings, the special envoy office said it “facilitated the exchanges of ‘messages’ from each group” that it expected would pave the way for a possible preliminary dialogue.

However, a junta spokesman, Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, flat out denied attending any meeting, telling local media on Nov. 25 that the military did not appoint any interlocutors and had no reason to participate.  

Such meetings are pointless, said Aung Myo, a former Myanmar military officer who is now a political analyst.

“Indonesia, touted as the democracy champion of ASEAN, is merely asserting, perhaps to conceal its shortcomings, that it has made efforts to address the Myanmar crisis during its chairmanship term for ASEAN in 2023,” he told RFA Burmese, a unit of Radio Free Asia, which is affiliated with BenarNews. 

“This meeting will have no impact or effects on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar.”

Another analyst in Myanmar, Than Soe Naing, described the meeting as a mere gesture.

“ASEAN is merely showcasing its efforts,” Than Soe Naing told RFA.

“I don’t think that, in practice, they could achieve any result.”

‘Indonesia should hold emergency meeting’

Meanwhile, the situation in Myanmar has worsened with resistance groups of different stripes taking on the military and partially succeeding in some areas. 

Burmese junta chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, in fact, confirmed on Nov. 27 that ethnic rebels had taken over several military outposts in northern Shan state, as reported by Radio Free Asia. 

And an intensification of fighting between ethnic Arakan Army fighters and junta troops in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state has caused tens of thousands of villagers to flee four major townships, residents said on Monday, RFA reported.

A member of the insurgent Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF) rescues civilians trapped amid airstrikes during a battle to take over Loikaw, in Kayah State, Myanmar, Nov.14, 2023. [Stringer/AFP]

Amid this worsening conflict in Myanmar and its potential fallout for the region, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should call an emergency meeting with ASEAN leaders to address the situation there, The Jakarta Post said in an editorial on Monday.

It also suggested Jokowi could talk with other ASEAN leaders attending the currently ongoing climate conference COP 28 in Dubai and set a meeting for when that event ends on Dec. 12.

During an emergency summit of ASEAN leaders in Jakarta in April 2021, Myanmar coup leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing agreed to a five-point regional roadmap to peace.

The plan included ending violence, starting dialogue, providing humanitarian aid, appointing a special envoy, and an ASEAN envoy visiting Myanmar. 

But the junta has ignored the five-point consensus. Since the coup in February 2021, the Burmese military has cracked down on mass protests, killed more than 4,200 people and arrested tens of thousands more, human rights groups say.

Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing (left) is greeted during his arrival at Soekarno-Hatta international airport to attend the ASEAN summit on the Myanmar crisis, in Jakarta, April 24, 2021. [Handout Indonesian Presidential Palace via AFP]

Usman Hamid, the executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said the decision to exclude the Myanmar junta leader from ASEAN summits had been ineffective, as it did not deter the Myanmar military from committing crimes against humanity.

Yet, Usman said, Indonesia, in its stint as ASEAN chair, should not be blamed completely, because certain bloc principles such as non-intervention in members’ internal affairs are obstacles.

“This indicates that ASEAN has not effectively fulfilled its collective and effective role as a focal point in addressing regional political issues in Southeast Asia, especially Myanmar,” Usman told BenarNews.

“This is not only Indonesia's responsibility, but also ASEAN’s shared responsibility.”

RFA Burmese contributed to this report. 


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