Retno’s quiet mission

The Myanmar question is unlike any of the other diplomatic issues Indonesia will seek to address this year as Asean chair.


Military hardware is displayed during a parade to celebrate Myanmar's 78th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27. Violence has reportedly remained rampant since the country’s military coup in February 2021. (AFP)

April 12, 2023

JAKARTA – We understand and appreciate Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi’s avoidance of publicity in her role as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar during Indonesia’s chairmanship of the regional bloc this year. The minister seems to be following the old adage that “silence is golden”, not least in delicate diplomatic situations.

The Myanmar question is unlike any of the other diplomatic issues Indonesia will seek to address this year as chair. The sensitivities and divided interests of the competing factions within Myanmar, as well as of the ASEAN nations observing the crisis from without, mean real consensus will be hard to reach and the benefits of large, open discussions may be limited.

Nonetheless, Indonesia’s silence on the issue has raised concerns that it will repeat the failures of previous ASEAN chairs Brunei and Cambodia to do anything to improve the situation.

Last Wednesday, Retno told reporters that “everything is on the right track” with regard to the country’s diplomatic efforts. She claimed the ministry’s public reticence, especially with regard to Myanmar, was necessary to “build trust”.

Indonesia began its ASEAN chairmanship in January, having held the Group 20 presidency last year, which many recognized as a success.

As a committed, if flawed, democracy, Indonesia is expected to be more stern than the bloc’s recent chairs in demanding that junta leader Ming Aung Hlaing honor the Five-Point Consensus, which he signed in Jakarta about two years ago.

The consensus calls for an immediate end to violence in Myanmar, dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special envoy on the crisis, the acceptance of humanitarian assistance from ASEAN and the acceptance of a visit from the special envoy to Myanmar to meet with all relevant parties.
To make progress on these demands, Retno’s quiet diplomacy may prove to be the right choice, provided quiet does not mean feckless. The minister is supported by a strong team of specifically appointed diplomats and may be able to make gains behind the scenes on the intransigent issue.

While we find ourselves wishing that Retno kept more of the mission open to the public, we grant her, for the time, the benefit of the doubt as we await good news on the matter when ASEAN leaders regroup for their summit in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, early next month.

We hope President Jokowi will announce substantial progress on Myanmar at the summit. And if it turns out the junta has remained stubborn, we hope the President will call for the expulsion of Myanmar from ASEAN and grant dissenting factions like the National Unity Government (NUG) a full audience with ASEAN.

In an indication of some of the complexities that attend ASEAN’s Myanmar response, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is likely to miss the May 9-11 summit as he focuses on Thailand’s May 14 general election, where he will seek to extend his leadership. A defeat of Prayuth would deal a hard blow to the Myanmar junta, as he is the only ASEAN leader who openly supports the military regime, having himself seized power in a coup.

No other issue currently facing ASEAN creates this kind of internal discord. Indonesia’s other goals for its chairmanship, including to have ASEAN be an “epicenter” of economic growth, and benefit from alignments in economic interests among member nations. The Myanmar question seems to sidestep many of these commonalities to present a starker issue of ethics and government.

By the time President Jokowi closes the summit, ASEAN leaders should have issued a joint declaration demonstrating real progress in Myanmar. A failure to do so would be an indictment of Indonesia’s diplomacy and, in turn, of Retno’s silence.

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