March 29, 2023
JAKARTA – As the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, set for May 9-11 is drawing closer, it is only natural to expect President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as this year’s chairman of the regional grouping to share with the public of Indonesia and people across Southeast Asia the progress he has achieved since January, especially in connection with the Myanmar conundrum.
The President has vowed to not let the Myanmar junta hold ASEAN and its noble goals hostage. Hopes abound among the global community and the people of Myanmar, including the persecuted Rohingyas minority, that ASEAN under Indonesia’s chairmanship will achieve major breakthroughs in its bid to stop the power-hungry military from oppressing the people. But so far, Jokowi has given no signal that the much-awaited progress is there.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has assigned a powerful team, comprising senior and best-performing diplomats to man the Office of Special Envoy for Myanmar. The minister herself is the official special envoy of ASEAN for this year. The team works in secret to avoid unnecessary controversies that can backfire against the mission.
But still, the ministry must keep the public updated about what the special team has done or achieved. We have barely seen the steps ASEAN’s foreign ministers have taken after their meeting in Jakarta last month.
It is quite worrying, too, that President Jokowi has not realized his intention to involve the Indonesian Military (TNI) element in a peace mission to Myanmar. Jokowi revealed his plan to appoint an Army general as his special envoy to Myanmar, to emulate his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also a retired general, who did it in 2007.
Jokowi disclosed his intention in an interview with Reuters on Feb. 1, when the world marked the second anniversary of the military coup against the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Jokowi’s statement soon created confusion at the Foreign Ministry because the plan had not been informed to the diplomats beforehand.
During the interview, Jokowi also said that ASEAN would “not be held hostage” by the Myanmar conflict, and would “act decisively” if there was no progress on the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus the Myanmar junta had agreed upon during the emergency summit in Jakarta in April 2021.
Jokowi did not elaborate further but it was clear there was an intention to expel the junta from, while accepting non-junta elements into, the regional grouping’s official activities, including the summit.
Speculations have been rife that Jokowi would name his trusted aide, Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Gen. (ret) Luhut Pandjaitan, or Lt. Gen (ret) Agus Widjojo, who has vast experience in dealing with Myanmar’s military as part of this mission.
The choice of a military figure to personally communicate with Myanmar’s junta is the right decision, as it will power up the diplomatic efforts by Minister Retno in finding solutions to the Myanmar crisis. It should be clear that the foreign minister is in charge of the mission.
Such an approach would allow the foreign minister to focus on talks with non-junta elements, such as the National Unity Government (NUG), which is widely regarded as the representative of the ousted government of Suu Kyi. Her unconditional release should be one of the top priorities of the diplomatic endeavor.
The NUG has repeatedly demanded that ASEAN recognize it as the official representative of the country. But knowing the complexity of the crisis, it will be more productive for Indonesia to regard the NUG as one of Myanmar’s elements.
There is an international agreement that the Myanmar junta should abide by the five-point consensus, which requires an immediate end to violence, dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special envoy, entry of ASEAN humanitarian assistance and the visit of an ASEAN special envoy to meet with all parties in Myanmar.
Despite the daunting challenges he faces in restoring peace and democracy in Myanmar, Jokowi we believe can produce a meaningful breakthrough. The only problem is that the public, especially the people of Myanmar, cannot wait for too long.