December 29, 2022
JAKARTA – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen symbolically handed over the gavel of the ASEAN chairmanship to Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Phnom Penh on Nov. 13, the last day of the ASEAN Summit. Jokowi’s term for the ASEAN chairmanship will be effective on Jan. 1, 2023.
All eyes are now on Indonesia with the high expectation that it could help resolve the protracted Myanmar conflict. Why is it so? Let me start with a brief background of the Myanmar conflict.
On the morning of Feb. 1, 2021, the Myanmar military, for the third time since Myanmar gained independence on Jan. 4, 1948, launched a coup d’etat and deposed the democratically elected government of Myanmar. It was on the day the newly elected members of parliament were going to convene the first session of parliament after an overwhelming landslide victory of Aung San Su Kyi’s NLD Party in the November 2020 national elections.
The people of Myanmar had deeply suffered for about five decades of military dictatorship from the previous two military coups. They could not tolerate such a mishap for the third time. They felt insulted that the military entirely neglected their votes and their right to self-determination in choosing their own government.
Thousands of people from all walks of life orchestrated anti-military dictatorship demonstrations throughout the country. They were primarily spearheaded by the youth, affectionately known as Generation Z, consisting of about 5 million first-time voters. The demonstrations were brutally cracked down by the military, which culminated with the bloodshed of hundreds of demonstrators.
The people of Myanmar wanted to seek help from the United Nations to intervene under the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). However, many attempts to propose R2P in the UN Security Council failed due to the threatened vetoes of China and Russia. Due to a stalemate in the Council, the UN tactfully handed over the Myanmar conflict to ASEAN, the regional organization in which Myanmar is a member.
After the coup, the chair of ASEAN, Brunei Darussalam and its special envoy, Erywon Yusof, pursued a five-point consensus adopted by the ASEAN Meeting of Leaders (AML) without any success. When the next chair, Cambodia, took over in January 2022, Prime Minister Hun Sen personally spearheaded the overtures to the Myanmar military and again failed to achieve anything. Even today, the Myanmar military chief did not implement any of the five-point consensus that he himself had agreed.
In fact, many analysts have not had many expectations from Hun Sen, as he also is an authoritative ruler, controlling Cambodia with an iron fist for about 37 years. He only deals with the Myanmar military chief and never listens to the voice of opposition in Myanmar.
One of the missteps of Hun Sen was the convening of the Consultative Meeting on ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance to Myanmar on May 6, inviting high-ranking officials from the military junta. The meeting was widely criticized by analysts due to its reliance on relief contributions to the junta, the main culprit for the 1.4 million displaced people by means of their indiscriminate bombing, heavy-duty shelling and burning down of houses in numerous villages in rural areas of Myanmar.
No results came out of the meeting, as predicted.
Why are there so many expectations from Indonesia as the new ASEAN chair? There are a number of reasons. First, Indonesia is one of the five founding states of ASEAN and as an economic powerhouse in Southeast Asia, it can play a strong leadership role in ASEAN.
Second, Indonesia is the third largest democracy in the world and the leadership and people of Indonesia will understand well the suffering of the people of Myanmar under a decades-long military dictatorship.
Third, the history of Indonesia bears witness to the country as a world-renowned mediator.
Finally and most importantly, Indonesia was once under military rule and successfully transitioned to a democratic state. Indonesia’s vast experience with this strategic transition will definitely help President Jokowi and the new Indonesian special envoy for Myanmar to be able to overcome the challenges ahead.
There will be numerous obstacles on the path to restore peace and stability in Myanmar. Nevertheless, with the recent first ever Security Council resolution on the situation in Myanmar, urging the junta to immediately release all detained prisoners and to effectively and fully implement ASEAN’s five-point consensus, ASEAN is getting the necessary clout to move forward.
Happy New Year and good luck to Indonesia as the new ASEAN chair!
The writer is a professor of law at the International Islamic University Malaysia.