January 5, 2023
JAKARTA – Middle power Indonesia may now have earned the trust of the international community as a “neutral” peace mediator for its successful management of the Group of 20, in which leaders unanimously condemned Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine without appearing to take sides in the conflict.
However, the real test for the Southeast Asian giant’s ability to handle a conflict lies ahead in its very own backyard as Indonesia chairs ASEAN this year.
All eyes are now on Indonesia to take real actions to solve the Myanmar crisis during its presidency of the bloc after this year’s chair Cambodia hardly made any meaningful progress on the cause.
Indonesia needs to replicate its G20 success during its ASEAN chairmanship as the bloc is expected to be divided among its members on how to handle the Myanmar crisis.
There is compelling evidence that the way the regional bloc manages the situation in Myanmar is going nowhere, allowing the humanitarian crisis to drag on, with now over 3,000 civilians having been killed, and prompting the United Nations to label it a crime against humanity.
Thus, as the chair of ASEAN Indonesia should take a more-proactive policy by becoming an honest and independent broker of peace in the Myanmar crisis, an option overlooked by Brunei in 2021 and Cambodia in 2022.
The Myanmar junta launched a coup on Feb. 1, 2021 after a military-supported party lost to the National League for Democracy (NLD) in November 2020 elections, alleging massive vote rigging.
The political crisis promptly sparked mass protests that led to deadly violence.
Massive economic as well as military sanctions imposed by international communities on Myanmar after the coup did not help much to end the violence. Historically, the military regime has been immune to economic and military sanctions in previous atrocities.
The prolonged crisis in Myanmar, if it remains unsolved, however, will have an impact on regional security. Therefore, ASEAN, particularly Indonesia, must change the way it handles the Myanmar crisis.
Isolating the junta will not bring any meaningful benefits, as the military rulers have controlled the country for decades without looking for international support to stay in power. One solution to the problem is to engage with the junta leaders to be able to work and persuade them to bring peace in Myanmar.
There are several walkable steps that Indonesia can take to become an honest and independent broker of peace in Myanmar.
Indonesia should call for a special ASEAN summit to brief the bloc’s leaders about the country’s plan. Separately, the Myanmar embassy in Central Jakarta should also be briefed about the mission.
This initial move is important to avoid misunderstanding from ASEAN leaders as well as the embassy.
The next step is Indonesia, in its capacity as the ASEAN chair, should suspend the membership of Myanmar from the regional grouping to avoid regional interference from other members.
In its role as an independent mediator Indonesia should detach itself from any ASEAN attributes and instead deal with the suspended Myanmar not as the chair of ASEAN but as a Southeast Asian neighbor.
Further, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo could also pay a visit to meet the junta in Myanmar to express the country’s intention to become a mediator of peace in the crisis.
Human-to-human contact prior to setting up a peace mission for the Myanmar crisis may earn the trust of the internationally isolated junta leaders to agree to sit on a negotiation table to end the crisis.
Ensuring the sustainability of the peace mission is another crucial element of the noble cause. Therefore, Indonesia must establish a special team that will communicate intensively with all sides in Myanmar through the peace process.
The taskforce must be chaired by a democratic-leaning former military general. One of the options available is former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Sending a former military general to negotiate with Gen. Hlaing can be an effective way of communicating with the junta regime. From Indonesia’s end, it will also be easier for Jokowi to communicate with the taskforce chief, who is his direct predecessor.
The team’s immediate mandate is among others asking the junta to stop the brutal crackdown on protesters during the mediation process.
In addition, Indonesia is also in a good position as an honest peace broker as it does not have historical baggage with Myanmar, and the country has a success story of transitioning from an authoritarian to democratic regime back in 1998, a process that Yudhoyono experienced as a military general.
Indonesia has set a good precedence in its role in the Myanmar crisis when initiatively calling for a special summit in April 2021. The fact that the junta leader attended the meeting in Jakarta was a good gesture, suggesting that the junta respects Indonesia’s initiative.
The meeting produced the so-called “five-point consensus” agreed upon by Myanmar, but it has so far failed to comply.
Indonesia has a history of engaging Myanmar in the humanitarian crisis in its Rakhine state, in which Indonesia applied the so-called “4+1” formula to address the conundrum. This provides Indonesia with a good opportunity to propose itself as an honest mediator in its capacity as Southeast Asian power, not as the chair of ASEAN.
To be an effective peace mediator, when talking to the junta, Indonesia should leave its ASEAN flag and become a good listener. On the negotiation table, Indonesia should avoid preaching, moralizing or threatening language to make the negotiation effective.
Like it or not, the junta is the only party that can stop and establish peace in Myanmar now. Thus, disengaging them will only risk prolonging the violence in the country that could bring more civilian casualties.
The main challenge now is to find a legitimate article in the ASEAN Charter to temporarily suspend Myanmar from the organization for not complying with the “five-point consensus”.
However, the vaguely worded Article 20, which reads “matters shall be referred to the ASEAN summit for decision”, should be enough to become a legal basis for the suspension.
Indonesia is in a good position to do the suspension, being the chair of ASEAN.
Some ASEAN members may disagree with the suspension, but Indonesia has the capacity to lead members to a consensus on the matter given its important role in the bloc.
Domestically, this foreign policy option will receive support from the House of Representatives as a stable Myanmar will stop the influx of refugees from the country to Indonesia.
Solving the crisis is in the best interest of Indonesia and all ASEAN members to avoid its repercussions on regional security. Indonesia has moral and political support both at home and in the region to become an honest broker of peace in Myanmar.
The writer is a master candidate in the international relations program at the University of Melbourne.