Is Indonesia’s best good enough to handle the Myanmar crisis?

Despite Asean’s adoption of the five-point-consensus, it is a well-known fact that there are divisions among member countries over how to handle Myanmar, says the writer.


March 23, 2023

KUALA LUMPUR – PRESSURE is now on Indonesia as Asean chair this year to tackle the humanitarian crisis and human rights violations in Myanmar that are now in their third year.

Asean has been struggling to get Myanmar’s military junta to come on board and adhere to the five-point consensus (5PC) drawn up by the regional grouping after a coup threw out the democratically elected government in February 2021, triggering violence that killed thousands and displaced more than a million people.

Two months after the coup, Asean leaders sat down for an emergency summit in Jakarta and adopted the 5PC that called for an immediate end to the violence, a visit by a special envoy to foster dialogue among contending parties, and provision of humanitarian aid. The summit was attended by junta leader Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in an interview with The Straits Times this week said Indonesia is in ongoing discussions with various parties in Myanmar behind the scenes in hopes of helping to resolve the crisis but he admitted it will take time.

As Asean chair this year, he promised Indonesia will do its best to improve the situation, and the priority for Indonesia and Asean is to implement the peace plan that Myanmar had agreed to earlier.

A Malaysian official said after a successful Group of 20 chairmanship, the pressure is on Indonesia to push for the 5PC and persuade Myanmar to deliver on its promise.

“Indonesia, being the biggest country in Asean, surely wants to deliver something and I am sure they want to show progress during its chairmanship of Asean,” he said.

Despite Asean’s adoption of the 5PC, it is a well-known fact that there are divisions among member countries over how to handle Myanmar.

During Cambodia’s chairmanship last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen triggered unhappiness when he went to Myanmar without consulting Asean members.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, in his first remarks on Myanmar after meeting Jokowi in January, urged the military junta to implement the 5PC.

Just when you think the Prime Minister would stick to the Asean consensus, he decided to take the issue up a notch during his address at the Malaysia-Thai Chambers of Commerce’s event in Bangkok on Feb 10.

“We should carve Myanmar out for now, and I don’t think the Myanmar issue should frustrate our moves. It would be ideal if we could have just a strong consensus in giving a strong message to the Myanmar regime,” he said in Thailand.

Just what does he mean by “carve Myanmar out” is anybody’s guess because it is typical of Anwar to say a few lines on some topics without explaining what he means.

But this prompted Wisma Putra to issue a statement seen as an attempt to clarify those remarks in Bangkok: The statement issued at 2.30am the next day said Malaysia will continue to work closely and constructively with Asean members to help Myanmar achieve a peaceful and sustainable solution, underscoring the need for full and effective implementation of the 5PC.

“Malaysia supports the efforts being undertaken by Asean under the Chairmanship of Indonesia and through its Special Envoy as agreed to by Asean at its recent Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Jakarta. In his keynote address to the Malaysia-Thai Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim put emphasis on building ‘a strong consensus in giving a strong message to the Myanmar regime’ to end discrimination, marginalisation, intimidation and violence against the people of Myanmar.

“This is in line with the principle that Malaysia stands for, and will continue to promote at home and abroad. By stating ‘We should carve Myanmar out for now’, the Prime Minister made a solid point that the rest of Asean nevertheless should not allow the Myanmar issue to distract us from continuing to pursue a much stronger collaboration to promote peace, security and prosperity for Asean and its people.”

That statement is as vague as Anwar’s remarks. Nothing new there.

Asean works by consensus, something the Anwar needs to remember, and he should not simply announce something without consulting the other leaders. True, as he said he is a junior in the grouping, but surely he became familiar with the “Asean Way” when he was in the government in the 1990s?

A Malaysian official said his first impression when he heard the speech was the words used sounded very strong.

“Anybody who has heard his remarks would have thought he is talking about some kind of action against Myanmar. What did he mean… isolate Myanmar? Put aside Myanmar?

“To a Western audience, all they can think about is suspension of membership.

“But it is not in Asean’s DNA. You don’t suspend a member or, worse, kick a member out.”

For former foreign minister Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar, the “carve out” remark was good in putting Asean on notice that it should change its course from ignoring the reality on the ground to engaging with the problem.

“It is a good statement for Asean, to provoke discussion. It is not entirely the internal affairs of Myanmar because the outflow of refugees has affected the social safety as well as security of several Asean countries and even the ones in South Asia.

“And if Asean is not willing to handle [the crisis] because Asean finds it difficult and complex, then what is the point of having Asean if it is just economic cooperation?”

During a similar visit to Manila recently, Anwar said deciding by consensus does not mean Asean should remain silent over developments in member states.

“I believe that non-interference is not a license for indifference.”

But in an interview with the Associated Press, Anwar conceded he is not calling for suspension but for Asean to explore ways to end the crisis so it would not hamper the bloc’s political and economic progress.

Perhaps the Prime Minister has realised that there has been silence from other members on his carve Myanmar out proposal.

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