Two years ago, following Myanmar’s military coup on February 1, 2021, Indonesia called an emergency summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta. “The development of the situation in Myanmar is unacceptable and must not continue,” President Joko Widodo announced. On April 24, 2021, the nine ASEAN leaders and Myanmar junta chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, committed to a five-point consensus intended to chart a path toward dialogue and de-escalation of the crisis.
Within days, the junta repudiated the agreement, going on to unleash a reign of atrocities against the Myanmar people that continues today, massacring, torturing, and starving its perceived opposition.
Meanwhile, the international community has put ASEAN in the driver’s seat, endlessly reiterating, as in the December UN Security Council resolution on Myanmar, “its full support for ASEAN’s central role in facilitating a peaceful solution.” But with no clear tools or leverage to move forward, ASEAN has been left effectively holding the bag for Myanmar’s descent toward becoming a failed state.
“Indonesia is deeply concerned by the military’s lack of commitment to implement the Five-Points Consensus,” Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told the UN General Assembly in September 2022, following the junta’s execution of four pro-democracy activists. The next month, she reported that the situation was “deteriorating and worsening.”
The foreign minister’s frankness suggested Indonesia’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2023 would bring about a stronger regional response, following Cambodia’s self-admitted foundering last year.
But as it wraps up its first quarter as ASEAN chair, Indonesia has fallen short.
The chair’s statement at the February Foreign Ministers’ Retreat contained only meek language on Myanmar, toothlessly urging the junta to implement the five-point consensus, which called for an immediate end to violence and constructive dialogue, among other points. Jakarta has offered no clarity on what action will be taken against a member that has grievously violated not only the joint agreement, but the binding ASEAN Charter, which enshrines the principles of democracy, rule of law, and human rights.
Behind closed doors, Marsudi reportedly presented a plan to make progress on the consensus at a UN Security Council briefing in March, an outcome of the November 2022 ASEAN Leaders Summit that called for “an implementation plan that outlines concrete, practical and measurable indicators with specific timeline to support the Five-Point Consensus.”
But putting any meaningful plan into effect will require a timeline with tangible consequences for the junta’s violations, which should include the threat of suspending Myanmar under article 20 of the ASEAN Charter, covering noncompliance and serious breaches of the Charter. Indonesia should formalize the proposal made by Jokowi at the November summit to expand the ban on junta representatives at ASEAN meetings.
Rather than appointing an individual as special envoy to Myanmar, like the previous two chairs, Indonesia has established a special envoy’s office headed by Foreign Minister Marsudi, working alongside longtime diplomat Ngurah Swajaya. The office has been operating “in a low key manner,” a spokesperson told Frontier Myanmar. “Not all diplomatic activities need to be disclosed to the public.” Reported plans for a military envoy have not yet materialized.
Grappling with the Myanmar junta’s intransigence has exposed fault lines within the regional bloc. Indonesia and Malaysia, often alongside Singapore and the Philippines, have favored a more vocal approach to Myanmar that has been stymied by Thailand and Cambodia’s expressed reluctance to isolate the junta. The result is a lowest common denominator strategy presented under the guise of “consensus.”
Marsudi reported that at their February meeting, the foreign ministers “reiterated the united approach” on Myanmar – a misguided cover falsely equating a diversified approach with weakness.
In December, Thailand hosted an “informal” meeting on the crisis with junta officials, attended by Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which the other ASEAN members sat out. An opaque Thai-led “1.5 track dialogue” with Laos, Bangladesh, India, and junta representatives followed in mid-March. If Bangkok has no qualms charting its own course without the sign-off of all ASEAN members, why should Indonesia handcuff itself as chair to protect a “consensus” approach that’s serving no one?
Indonesia should instead be capitalizing on its leadership role by helping build a coalition of concerned governments, including regional powers as well as Western countries that have hidden behind “ASEAN centrality,” to create pressure that’s layered yet complementary. Gaining buy-in from many if not all ASEAN states as well as Japan and South Korea would strengthen both diplomatic and punitive actions.
Jakarta should encourage other governments to toughen sanctions on the junta’s revenues – first and foremost from oil and gas – and to enhance their enforcement of existing measures. It should welcome more concrete action by the Security Council, with steps toward a resolution imposing a global arms embargo, targeted sanctions against the military, and a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court. Indonesia cannot present itself as a broker or envoy between junta authorities and the outside world unless the punitive actions that the world is imposing are serious enough to get the junta’s attention.
“The interests of the Myanmar people must always be the priority,” Jokowi said at the emergency summit in Jakarta two years ago.
But the junta’s generals serve neither the country nor its people. Indonesia should be engaging, formally and consistently, with those who do – Myanmar civil society activists and the opposition National Unity Government, among others. Local groups are also key for the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre) to deliver aid effectively, one of the tasks of the five-point consensus, rather than relying on junta authorities who have misused and weaponized humanitarian assistance.
“The criticisms shouldn’t be aimed at ASEAN,” Marsudi said in November. “They should be aimed at the junta.… We did our part.”
Certainly, the junta is directly responsible for the crimes against humanity and war crimes it’s committing across the country.
But for the millions of people brutally oppressed by the junta, ASEAN has not done its part. Not when there is so much more that Jakarta could be doing, and so much more that needs to be done.