Policymakers must address these genuine economic concerns as the current stagflation has made life especially difficult for the vast majority of the people.
After Indonesia was handed over the Asean chair in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 13 November 2022, the immediate expectation of the rest of the grouping’s members pertained to the measures Indonesian President Joko Widoko would take to resolve the political crisis in Myanmar.
When Indonesia held the Asean chair last, it had expertly pulled its weight and rallied its Asean colleagues to muster up a credible response to the Myanmar crisis.
This time around, the expectations revolve around how Indonesia will propose to implement the 2022 Asean Summit’s Review and Decision on the 2021 Five Point Consensus (5PC) on Myanmar. This was a peace plan that all Asean members agreed on in Jakarta in April 2021, two months after the military coup in the member country.
The plan called for an immediate cessation of violence, dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special envoy, engagement with the envoy, and regional humanitarian assistance. That has not happened.
The initial indictors are fraught with uncertainties. During the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Retreat that met to discuss and set the bloc’s agenda for the year, including strategies to implement Asean Summit directives, the Chair’s statement seemed to be underwhelming.
As Chair, Indonesia upheld the non-political representative criteria for the State Administrative Council.
As expected, the SAC refused to send a representative. Myanmar’s seat remained empty. Prospective member Timor-Leste attended the retreat as an observer. As part of the 5PC’s call to “meet with all parties concerned”, Indonesia proposed a more nuanced approach to engaging the SAC and other Myanmar stakeholders.
In January, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry announced plans to set up an Office of the Special Envoy on Myanmar led by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi with a view to entrench the engagement process beyond annual rotations of chairmanship.
Originally this idea for Myanmar’s national reconciliation was proposed by Japan’s special envoy Yohei Sasakawa. It was also proposed that Asean should establish an office in Myanmar to advance working-level talks. Widodo also announced his intention to send a high-ranking general to Naypyidaw to share Indonesia’s democratic transition experience, with speculation about Coordinating Minister for Maritime and Economic Affairs Luhut Panjaitan as a potential candidate.
The retreat did not look promising. Though the key emphasis was on the need for a unified approach to Myanmar, there were divergent views among Asean member states on the idea of a constructive approach to the crisis.
For example, Thailand did not brief the retreat about the regional talks it hosted in Bangkok in December 2022. In any case, Thailand’s idea of convening a Track 1.5 meeting to “to jump-start political dialogue” had no taker as it lacked content and context. The proposal was not also discussed with the Asean chair.
Even Malaysia was miffed. When Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim visited Thailand on 10 February, he suggested that the bloc “carve Myanmar out”, implying that Myanmar be suspended if not expelled.
If such a suggestion is taken forward, the regional community-building spirit would have received a jolt. So, that is not an option.
Even after two years, there is no clarity on Asean’s approach to 5PC. An opinion survey of the bloc revealed that 31.5 per cent are neutral.
There are mixed views within the bloc. If viewed nation wise, the highest level of neutrality came from Laos (61.6 per cent), Cambodia (56 per cent) and Brunei (48.3 per cent). 19.6 per cent felt that the 5PC is fundamentally flawed in addressing complex issues. As expected, Myanmar respondents (35.7 per cent) tended to view the 5PC itself as fundamentally flawed. There is little hope that the West or nations outside of the Asean bloc can have a unified approach as they are bogged down by the Ukraine crisis.
It thus transpires that the Asean way on Myanmar is not working. This makes Indonesia’s task tougher.
Amid the uncertainty about the election plans for the SAC, which is already deferred by six months and a new date yet to be announced, Indonesia needs to come up with an implementation plan for the 5PC, with measurable indicators and a specific timeline.
The onus lies on Indonesia as the Asean Chair to take up the leadership role on a unified response to the SAC’s moves and to ensure that elections are held in Myanmar in a free and fair manner, meeting the aspirations of the Myanmarese people. Elections, if ever held in Myanmar, shall be scrutinised by the international community.
For Indonesia, the clock is ticking, despite the goodwill it has generated about its sincerity to seek a solution to the crisis. From all possible indicators, the much lauded constructive engagement effort is just not working. Indonesia needs the bloc’s fierce support if seeking a solution.
The last time Indonesia led Asean was in 2011. That time, the task was not tough but this time it is different because of the political crisis in Myanmar.
As stated by Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi, Indonesia is committed to implement the 5PC, which is the main platform to help Myanmar exit from the present political crisis.
The problem is the issue is so complex that no solution can be expected within one year ~ the term of a member’s chairmanship.
So, Indonesia’s approach seems to be short-sighted. On the decision to send a special envoy, it should have been an Asean special envoy, not that of the chair. It may be recalled that the previous two Asean chairs ~ Cambodia and Brunei ~ failed in their individual initiatives.
It thus transpires that despite Indonesia’s sincerity as the chair and the bloc’s commitment to improve the situation, Asean’s clout is limited, and it is unable to take a tougher stance against the military regime.
Asean does not have a mechanism for suspension, let alone expulsion of a member. This is in contrast to the UN where a member can be suspended through the action of the UNSC or even in the Commonwealth where a member can be suspended.
As Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, the rest of the bloc has high expectations of Indonesia. But Myanmar’s military regime may make it difficult for Indonesia to achieve anything. But if Indonesia navigates a path that ensures peace, its standing as an effective leader of the region would have been enhanced.
(The writer is Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library New Delhi)