May 17, 2023
JAKARTA – President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo reaped international praise for not only foiling threats from the leaders of major countries like United States President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron to boycott the Group of 20 Summit in Bali last November, but also for guiding the world’s 20 largest economies to unified political stances and concrete economic commitments.
Unsurprisingly, when Jokowi took the ASEAN helm from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen late last year, hopes were rife he would lead the regional grouping to major breakthroughs with ease, including a bold agreement to end the military’s rampant atrocities in Myanmar. Jokowi’s magic, however, did not work during the ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara last week.
Why did President Jokowi fail to apply the recipe for G20 success to a smaller organization like ASEAN? The view of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Myanmar needs to be taken into account. In his message, Lee implicitly called on Jokowi not be too naïve about Myanmar.
The 10-member ASEAN is practically divided between those who support Jokowi’s Myanmar peace plan and those who insist that the bloc refrains from intervening with the domestic affairs of any member of the group. Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines are in favor of Jokowi. Predominantly Buddhist nations such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and communist Vietnam are against any form of intervention. The absolute monarchy of Brunei is also against Jokowi’s initiative.
The G20 Summit saw leaders of all member states except Russian President Vladimir Putin turn up and come up with a leaders’ declaration, including their condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Previously Biden and Macron had talked of a possible boycott as Jokowi insisted on inviting Putin to the summit.
The division among ASEAN member states, unlike that of the G20 economies, is a matter of political survival of their respective leaders. Those who back Myanmar to overcome its domestic crisis are mostly leaders who came to power not through a democratic process.
But we should remember that some ASEAN countries support Indonesia’s initiative on Myanmar not without their own agenda.
Remember when ASEAN resolved Cambodia’s civil war in the 1980s? Indonesia was too naïve in mediating peace in the war-torn country. Malaysia and Singapore threw their weight behind Indonesia’s peace initiative in Cambodia. When Indonesia was preoccupied by efforts to implement peace and reconciliation in Cambodia, the two countries were busy with their investment agenda there.
During the ASEAN Summit last week, Indonesia failed to present meaningful progress to the regional leaders on the Myanmar cause. In practice, Indonesia by no means made a difference from previous ASEAN chairs Brunei Darussalam and Cambodia. It will be very difficult to expect Indonesia to achieve major progress when it hands over its chairmanship to Laos later this year.
I myself initially believed, as this year’s rotating chairman of ASEAN, Jokowi could repeat his Bali magic when he hosted the biannual summit in the panoramic Labuan Bajo fishing port last week, especially in dealing with the Myanmar’s military junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
It was Jokowi who initiated an ASEAN emergency summit in April 2021 at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, which managed to pressurize Gen. Hlaing into signing the five-point consensus (5PC). The agreement includes an immediate end to violence in Myanmar, dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special envoy, humanitarian assistance by ASEAN and the special envoy’s visit to Myanmar to meet with all parties.
At the conclusion of the summit, the leaders emphasized the 5PC would remain their main reference. They all supported Indonesia’s engagement with all stakeholders in Myanmar to find a peaceful and durable solution.
But they refrained from explicitly supporting the expulsion of the military junta-ruled Myanmar from ASEAN and the immediate recognition of the opposition parties, including the National Unity Government (NUG).
“We remained deeply concerned about the escalation of the armed conflicts and violence in Myanmar. We urged for immediate cessation of all forms of violence to create a conducive environment for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and inclusive national dialogues,” the leaders said. It was a normative statement that they had regularly issued in the past.
Singapore’s Channel News Asia (CNA) quoted PM Lee as telling his colleagues during the Labuan Bajo gathering not to expect that it would be easy to solve the Myanmar crisis.
“It is a power struggle between different groups. To them, it’s life and death,” the prime minister warned. “ASEAN influence is not huge and not their principal consideration – and we have to understand that.”
Indonesian diplomats need to look back at their seniors’ experience in leading ASEAN’s decade-long attempts to end the civil war in Cambodia, during which China, the main supporter of the genocide of Khmer Rouge, and Vietnam, which invaded Cambodia in 1975 and placed Hun Sen as its puppet leader, played key roles.
Indonesia was able to reach a diplomatic breakthrough back then, only after president Soeharto agreed to resume diplomatic relations with China in 1990, after Jakarta severed ties with Beijing in 1965. Then Chinese PM Li Peng met with Soeharto in Jakarta to witness the restoration of the diplomatic ties. Later, China agreed to drop its support for the Khmer Rouge.
President Jokowi needs to learn from the Cambodian case that the warring factions only agreed to officially end the war after the intervention of the United Nations Security Council member, France. Indonesia and France cohosted the Paris Conference on Cambodia, resulting in the Comprehensive Cambodian Peace Agreement, commonly referred to as the Paris Agreement, on Oct. 23, 1991.
When Soeharto visited Cambodia for the first time since the peace deal in 1996, he was shocked to learn that even during the Cambodian war, Singapore and Malaysia had heavily invested in Phnom Penh. Soeharto also found a similar situation in Myanmar. At that time Soeharto visited Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar as ASEAN was finalizing their entry into the grouping.
When Soeharto visited Nelson Mandela-led South Africa in November 1997, he also found many Malaysian companies had long invested in Cape Town, even when the Apartheid policy was still in place. Like Indonesia, Malaysia had condemned Apartheid.
I am afraid that President Jokowi is just too naïve in his attempt to bring peace back to Myanmar. PM Lee’s advice that the warring factions in Myanmar are not dependent on ASEAN should be taken into consideration.
In accomplishing its mission in Myanmar, Indonesia should follow the realities, rather than the trick of the G20.
The writer is senior editor at The Jakarta Post.