July 17, 2023
JAKARTA – Although it is not clear what his intentions were, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai did try, until the very last minute, to torpedo the decision of the ASEAN leaders to temporarily bar Myanmar’s junta from participating in the regional bloc’s official meetings and functions. His main target was Indonesia.
How should we react? Forget Myanmar, if necessary.
The floor seemed not impressed at all when Pramudwinai presented the results of his meeting with Myanmar’s junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi during the ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting in Jakarta this week. The chief diplomats were just trying to be polite to their Thai counterpart.
ASEAN is prepared to deal with the new government of Thailand which resulted from the May elections. Despite the results of the election, ASEAN expects the new leader to be more cooperative in ending the brutality of the Myanmar military.
Pramudwinai, however, still tried aggressively to preach to his colleagues that the decision to alienate Myanmar was wrong, and that Thailand’s pro-Myanmar military approach should be adopted. Is ASEAN really wrong?
My answer is not at all. The Thai politician is wrong.
According to diplomatic norms, the attendance of the Thai foreign minister at the ASEAN annual meetings is more of a courtesy than a necessity. His boss, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, suffered a devastating defeat in the May 14 elections and has declared his resignation from politics.
Now Prayut’s role is as a caretaker, and so is that of the Thai foreign minister. But Pramudwinai proudly told the ASEAN foreign ministers of his meeting with jailed Suu Kyi three days before his arrival in Jakarta on Wednesday.
I imagined Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi tried to keep her composure when the Thai politician spoke up. She could not hide her dismay when hearing that Pramudwinai invited all ASEAN foreign ministers to attend a meeting he initiated with the Myanmar junta. The move was a slap in the face to Indonesia as the ASEAN chair and to the group as a whole because ASEAN leaders unanimously agreed to suspend Myanmar in Jakarta’s emergency summit in April 2021, two months after the junta seized power from the democratically elected government of Suu Kyi.
Pramudwinai knew very well that Indonesia did not agree with his meeting with Myanmar’s junta in Thailand last month. He insisted that Thailand, as the direct neighbor of Myanmar, bore the brunt of the conflict in the impoverished nation.
In a separate statement, the Thai Foreign Ministry said Pramudwinai and Suu Kyi had a “private one-hour meeting” in Myanmar on July 9.
“She was in good health, and it was a good meeting,” the Thai foreign minister told reporters on the sidelines of the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting on Wednesday, “She encouraged dialogue.”
Retno was clearly unimpressed. “Any other efforts must support the implementation of the five-point consensus,” she said, referring to the agreement reached in the Jakarta meeting in April 2021.
The five-point consensus (5PC) called for an immediate end to the violence; dialogue among all parties; the appointment of a special envoy; humanitarian assistance from ASEAN; the special envoy’s visit to Myanmar to meet with all parties.
Prayut did not attend the Jakarta emergency summit, citing domestic affairs. But it is common knowledge that he befriended the Myanmar junta leader. For Prayut, the coup in Myanmar and the ensuing atrocities were Myanmar’s own business and therefore ASEAN should not intervene. Prayut gained power through a coup himself.
Indonesia’s rotary ASEAN chairmanship will end in five months and it has not achieved any significant progress in restoring peace and democracy in Myanmar. But can we say it has been a failure? I don’t think so.
The way Pramudwinai briefed his colleagues looked as if he was the official representative of the Myanmar junta. He felt proud to become the first ASEAN official to meet Suu Kyi in person, clearly forgetting that it only happened because of the close relationship between Prayut and Hlaing.
In their joint communique, the ASEAN foreign ministers responded to the Thai initiative by saying “Some ASEAN Member States [Thailand] viewed it as a positive development. We reaffirmed ASEAN unity and reiterated that any effort should support, in line with the 5PC and coordination with the Chair of ASEAN.”
In their meeting, the ASEAN foreign ministers reaffirmed their commitment to the 5PC as the foundation for addressing the political crisis in Myanmar. They strongly condemned the continued acts of violence, including air strikes, artillery shelling and destruction of public facilities.
They also urged all parties involved to take concrete action to halt indiscriminate violence immediately, denounce any escalation and create an environment conducive to delivering humanitarian assistance and inclusive national dialogue.
The National Unity Government (NUG), the official representative of Suu Kyi in exile, condemned the latest initiative of Thailand.
“This meeting is a political ploy by the military regime intent on using Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for sheer political gain. It is also completely inappropriate that this coincided with the current ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting,” said Moe Zaw Oo, the deputy foreign minister of NUG.
“Whatever message is purported to have come from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we must view it with great suspicion as the policy is for her not to make any decisions without consulting her political colleagues. We must not forget that even her lawyers have not been allowed to meet her over the past months,” Suu Kyi’s close aide said, according to news wire services.
Efforts to put an end to the Myanmar conundrum remain challenging, in part also because major powers such as China, Russia and India are more than ready to help the military junta cling to power.
Prohibiting the Myanmar junta from attending ASEAN meetings is a wise decision, although, as Thailand has proved, lacks efficacy. Hopefully, the next government of Thailand will not follow Prayut’s pro-Myanmar junta approach.
The writer is senior editor at The Jakarta Post.