Jokowi should go ahead with military diplomacy in Myanmar

The writer says the Myanmar military does not care about its pariah status in global politics, and it is almost impossible to persuade them to listen to their neighbors. But there is no harm in trying.

Kornelius Purba

Kornelius Purba

The Jakarta Post


Ready to serve: President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, accompanied by Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, inspects the first batch of Reserve Component of the Indonesian Military (TNI) at the Special Forces Training and Education Center in Batujajar, near Bandung in West Java on Oct. 7, 2021. Jokowi also inaugurated the reserve unit. (Courtesy of /Documentary Team of the Defense Minister)

February 8, 2023

JAKARTA – Two days before he received ASEAN foreign ministers in Jakarta last Friday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced that he intended to send a senior military general as his envoy to talk with Myanmar’s junta.

This is not the first time Indonesia attempted the method. Jokowi’s predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) took a stab at this during his two five-year terms. There is a strong reason to hope the President’s plan will work.

In an interview with Reuters last week, the President revealed his military diplomacy plan to convince junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to learn from Indonesia’s transition from 32 years of military rule to a fully fledged democracy. It is a well-known fact that Myanmar’s military had learned a lot from Soeharto’s military rule, including the dual function of the military and the tight restrictions for political parties.

“This is a matter of approach. We have the experience; here in Indonesia, the situation was the same,” said Jokowi, the rotary chairman of ASEAN for this year. “This experience can be addressed: how Indonesia began its democracy.”

The idea to send a general to Myanmar is based on the experience and position of the Indonesian Military (TNI) during the transition of the country from a militaristic state to become the world’s third-largest democracy in just 10 years. 

Experts and analysts quickly criticized President Jokowi’s move to dispatch a general to Yangon, saying it was irrelevant to the current situation. 

Yet, we should all have reason to believe that President Jokowi’s action might work. We need to remember that many analysts and politicians were initially pessimistic about Jokowi’s ability to bring the world leaders together for the Group of 20 Summit in November. 

Capitalizing on that strong self-determination and the international credit he won during the presidency of Indonesia in the G20, Jokowi may succeed in this nearly impossible mission. After all, Indonesia is ASEAN’s largest economy, with the largest population and size, while the junta itself has to morally and also legally abide by ASEAN’s five-point commitments.

Jokowi himself has played an instrumental role in ASEAN’s efforts to bring Myanmar into the fold, including in the decision to exclude the military from the regional grouping’s official summits. The President hosted an emergency summit in April 2021 to discuss the worsening situation in the military-dominated nation.

Former-president Yudhoyono claimed his military approach, including his communications with the then-military junta leader, played an important role in changing the behavior of Myanmar’s regime. Yudhoyono probably exaggerated his achievement, but he was not too far off the mark, as some still insist. At least President Jokowi can use SBY’s initiative as the foundation for his approach.

Foreign ministers who gathered over the weekend in Jakarta did not respond to Jokowi’s plan. In fact, it was not mentioned at all in their final statement. And it seems that the Foreign Ministry officials appeared to have been surprised by the idea because it is likely that the President came up with the proposal without consulting them. 

In a statement issued after their foreign ministers’ meeting, these senior officials just reiterated their longstanding position on Myanmar, apparently to avoid open disagreement from Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. On the other hand, Indonesia’s idea to ban Myanmar from participating in ASEAN meetings is supported by Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

And Myanmar will continue to be barred from attending any ASEAN official meetings until junta leader Gen. Hlaing fully implements the regional grouping’s five-point commitments signed during ASEAN’s emergency summit in 2021 in Jakarta, only three months after he toppled the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

In a press statement, Foreign Minister Retno L.P. Marsudi again noted that “two years have passed since the military takeover of power in Myanmar and, in that regard, urged for significant progress in the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus to pave the way for an inclusive national dialogue in Myanmar”. 

“We stressed that inclusive national dialogue is key to finding a peaceful resolution to the situation in Myanmar. We also stressed that all stakeholders must create a conducive environment for an inclusive national dialogue by ceasing violence and ensuring the timely and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance,” said the statement. 

And until Jokowi announces the name of the general envoy, such a stance will remain in place and so far, the President has not given details about any candidate. One could expect that among the candidates could be his chief of staff Gen. (retired) Moeldoko, the former Indonesian Military (TNI) chief. The President is expected to announce his messenger this month and until that happens, Foreign Minister Retno remains the President’s special envoy for Myanmar.

Back in 2021, shortly before Gen. Hlaing ousted Aung San Suu Kyi from power on Feb. 1, 2021, I wrote a column suggesting President Jokowi appoint SBY as his envoy for Myanmar. “A figure like SBY, known as one of the key figures behind the Indonesian military’s reform, is the right person to approach the generals,” I argued at that time. 

Some of Jokowi’s supporters however criticized me because they did not want to see the former president being given a new lease on political life. Regardless of Jokowi’s political differences and personal issues with his predecessor, I am still arguing that there’s nothing wrong with considering Yudhoyono for the position.

In 2007, Yudhoyono sent a retired general Agus Widjojo to talk with junta leader Thein Shwe and other generals. Yudhoyono himself also had intensive personal communications with the junta leader. In 2011, the military started to ease its tight military control and let civilians be more active in politics. 

In 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD) scored a landslide victory in the general election and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from years of imprisonment. The 1991 Nobel laureate became the de-facto leader of Myanmar. 

In the 2020 election, Suu Kyi’s party again won an absolute majority in the parliament, but the military began to sense danger and Gen. Hlaing decided to remove her from power in February 2021, putting her in jail, kicked off military operation to murder innocent people, defying global leaders’ call to stop his atrocities.

If there’s something we can learn from that, let the President implement his plan and appoint a senior Army general to talk with Myanmar’s generals and of course, he had better combine it with other measures. It is not easy at all to deal with military generals who are used to practicing genocidal acts to keep them in power. 

The military does not care about its pariah status in global politics and it is almost impossible to persuade them to listen to their neighbors. But there is no harm in trying.

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