September 18, 2023
PHNOM PENH – Indonesia’s 2023 ASEAN chairmanship drew to a close with the conclusion of the 43rd ASEAN Summit last week. The year had started with high hopes for a solution to the Myanmar crisis, with Indonesia calling for the “return of democracy” in the military-controlled state that led to the adoption of the bloc’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC) in 2021.
By and large, there is no significant progress on the ground today. The military junta controls urban centers despite sporadic attacks by resistance forces. Ethnic armed organisations still hold or have influence in large swaths of the countryside. The Peoples’ Defense Forces carry out daily attacks on the Myanmar military’s columns and outposts, and battle casualties are accumulating. And the misery of displaced persons, including the Rohingya people, continues unabated across the country.
Nonetheless, ASEAN leaders issued a stronger statement at the summit, facilitated by a less contentious process this time. They called on the Myanmar military in particular to deescalate and cease its attacks against civilians. The leaders also agreed to create an informal consultation mechanism among the previous, current and next chairs (known as the ‘troika’).
They further decided that the Philippines would be the 2026 ASEAN chair instead of Myanmar, while maintaining the “disinvitation” of Myanmar from future summits and foreign ministers’ meetings. Perhaps most importantly, ASEAN leaders called for a “sustainable” approach to implementing the 5PC and engaging all Myanmar’s stakeholders in the process.
Indonesia’s leadership this year over the Myanmar crisis must not be understated. Not only did it sustain ASEAN’s position regarding “nonpolitical representatives” to the summit and foreign ministers’ meeting, Jakarta also created a separate Office of the ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar to ensure that its regular and expansive engagement with more stakeholders could continue without straining the Indonesian foreign minister.
Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi also attempted to convene all special envoys to Myanmar from different countries and organisations, including China and the UN, in an effort to promote better coordination in support of the 5PC.
Crucially, Indonesia spoke to various leaders of Myanmar’s ethnic groups as well as stakeholders through “quiet diplomacy”, or informal and discreet conversations led by the head of the special envoy’s office, I Gede Ngurah Swajaya. This set an important precedent that these ethnic groups are key stakeholders in any process moving forward, and that the special envoy is not bound to meet only those parties approved by Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council (SAC).
By bringing Myanmar’s stakeholders to Indonesia for these conversations, Jakarta also created a safe space outside Myanmar where they could gather and talk to one another. And by patiently listening to the views of diverse stakeholders, Indonesia also increased their confidence that ASEAN could play a role in transforming the crisis.
But quiet diplomacy also has its shortcomings. Myanmar’s stakeholders and the wider international policy community were left in the dark about the nature and content of these engagements. Nor were the objectives and outcomes of the engagements made clear, or what progress was being made.
Critics could argue that this highly centralised, nontransparent approach is ultimately ineffective when others could try to fill the vacuum by pushing their own respective mechanisms, such as the non-ASEAN Track 1.5 dialogues.
More broadly, ASEAN still lacks an implementation road map for the 5PC. Although the summit called for such a sustainable plan, Indonesia did not deliver one. The lack of institutional clarity for the special envoy’s office, such as whether it can be passed on to the next chair, for example, has exacerbated this problem. As the multifaceted Myanmar crisis will not be resolved in the near future, an institutionalised and sustained ASEAN mechanism backed by a multi-chair organisation is imperative
As Laos takes over as the ASEAN chair going into 2024, how might ASEAN rework its Myanmar approach?
First, institutions: The Office of the ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar could be institutionalised, with a dedicated pool of funds to support full-time staff (not ad-hoc diplomats) that transcends the term of the bloc’s rotating chairmanship.
Such an office could include representatives from other ASEAN member states who work as regional officers rather than representing their nations. The office, headed by the special envoy, could also be backed by deputies in charge of specific tasks, such as coordinating humanitarian assistance, monitoring ceasefires and engaging stakeholders to prepare the ground for inclusive dialogue.
Second is vision. ASEAN needs to develop a medium-term, three- to five-year road map to implement the 5PC with measurable indicators. This would set out the minimum conditions for “reintegrating” Myanmar into ASEAN, at which point the role of the special envoy would be complete. This ASEAN road map would be different from, but complementary to, Myanmar’s own road map to peace.
Doing so would help keep ASEAN adhering to its spirit of noninterference. An ASEAN road map could also alleviate pressures and temper expectations on any single ASEAN chair to “succeed” within their one-year term. Each chair would instead be building on the progress and supporting the work of the ASEAN special envoy.
Finally, coordination. The first level is at the ASEAN-minus level. Stronger ties, common intent and openness between Indonesia and Thailand are instrumental in pushing the needle on the Myanmar crisis. Arguably, while Indonesia has gained the trust of many stakeholders in Myanmar due to its engagement efforts, Thailand has leverage as a front-line state and through its links with the SAC. ASEAN will only stand a chance of dealing with the crisis if these two members work together.
The second level is ASEAN-plus. The support of external actors is essential, bringing together the international and regional special envoys of ASEAN and China, India, Japan, the EU, the UN and Thailand, possibly through a forum for joint coordination.
Institutions, vision and coordination are the three pillars for ASEAN to shift the needle on the Myanmar crisis. The path to overturning the tired accusations of ASEAN’s lack of unity and credibility will be long and arduous. But for the people of Myanmar, far more is at stake.
Lina Alexandra is head of the Department of International Relations at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Andrew Ong is director of research at the Surin Pitsuwan Foundation.
Min Zin is executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy.