Saving ASEAN's Mission for Myanmar

By Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma , a Researcher at the Department of International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia

The Myanmar crisis presents ASEAN with a test of its relevance and cohesion in solving politically sensitive regional problems, writes Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma. This week’s ASEAN summit in Jakarta struggled to paper over differences and keep consensus alive.

This week’s ASEAN summit symbolically ends a short and rushed ASEAN chairmanship for Indonesia, squeezed between last year’s G20 presidency and the upcoming 2024 Indonesian presidential election in February. For those observing the Myanmar crisis and hoping for progress, Indonesia’s chairmanship will likely be seen as a missed opportunity.

Indonesia came to the chairmanship with a big weight on its shoulders, having hosted a leaders’ summit in April 2021 that gave birth to the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) – the only recognised international peace plan for the Myanmar crisis. Following agreement on the 5PC in Jakarta, Indonesia embraced a continuing leadership role, monitoring progress of the 5PC during Brunei and Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanships and often acting as source of checks on its counterparts.

Brunei bided time over how to proceed with elements of the 5PC, while hoping the junta would de-escalate violence and heed ASEAN’s demands. Cambodia focused on delivery of humanitarian aid to the crisis-stricken country, leading it to maintain contacts with junta officials. But with Brunei looking too slow and Cambodia accused of being too lenient, there was an air of anticipation that Indonesia would do something different in 2023.

Indonesia did attempt to make a difference. Learning from the experience of the two previous chairs, Indonesia sought to de-escalate tensions between the array of stakeholders in Myanmar. Employing quiet diplomacy, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry engaged multiple stakeholders, including the pro-democracy National Unity Government, the ruling junta, ethnic armed organisations and political parties, in at least 145 “engagements” with around 70 undisclosed counterparts.

For this inclusivity, Indonesia deserves some applause. Facilitating conversations with the main players can’t hurt, especially amid concerns over “Myanmar  fatigue” on the part of ASEAN.  It might even be considered bold and principled, especially amid the temptation to be pragmatic, as many other major regional countries look keen to re-kindle relations with the junta. Under Indonesia, ASEAN maintains its bar on a political representative of the junta attending the ASEAN summit, albeit that is the only instrument of pressure ASEAN can afford. But status quo moves will not be enough. Problems continue to emerge in ASEAN’s relations with the junta. Without the appearance of a legitimate authority in Myanmar, ASEAN member states are presented with an array of dilemmas in coordination, as can be seen by the issue of rotating their ambassadors, which requires the presentation of credentials to the junta.

The lack of an agreed and endorsed long-term ASEAN framework that goes beyond, or at least complements, the 5PC is a problem for the chair. First, Indonesia remains isolated – too reliant on its own resources and investment. The Office of the Special Envoy has been manned by Indonesian diplomats alone and its fate beyond 2023 remains uncertain. Second, without a clear long-term plan nor set of specific objectives Indonesia’s effort to meet all the stakeholders risks turning into a simple listening exercise that could fade away under the next chair, Laos. ASEAN-level endorsement is important not just to bolster the authority of the chair, but also because it lends support to actors inside and outside of ASEAN that have leverage to influence and persuade parties to the conflict to de-escalate.

Indonesia now looks like a lone warrior, keen to move on from its chairmanship year. The image of isolation is underscored by the purported success of the “Thai approach” exemplified by Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai’s negotiated access to deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the staging of a track 1.5 informal dialogue. The track 1.5 approach, which blends government and non-government players, is endorsed by India and China. So far it has seen three informal meetings, attended by representatives of the junta at the ministerial level and four ASEAN countries – Laos, Cambodia, Brunei, and Vietnam. Even the Philippines reportedly sent a mid-level diplomat to one of the meetings, leaving out Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. But calls for pragmatism have come from Singapore, while Malaysia has curtailed its more idealist impulses. Moreover, the chairman’s statement from this week’s summit, without naming the junta, acknowledged efforts in Myanmar to “bring peace, stability, the rule of law, promote harmony and reconciliation among the various communities” and accommodate the voluntary return of displaced people from Bangladesh.

Approaching the summit, expectations had increasingly dimmed. The three-month work window from the last leadership summit in June to this week’s gathering of leaders in Jakarta offered a slim chance for a significant new consensus to emerge. Given the narrow window, all that remained was the pro forma denunciation of violence, the decision to continue the non-political representation of Myanmar at the leaders’ summits and the Foreign Ministers’ meetings and negotiated access for more humanitarian assistance.

Some substantive lingering issues were addressed in this week’s summit. The issue of Myanmar’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2026 was solved by Philippines’ willingness to step in. And the prospect of some continuity is offered by an agreement on an informal consultative mechanism, a Troika, between the past, the current, and next ASEAN chairs.

But for those viewing the crisis through the lens of the plight of the Myanmar people, the end of this Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship may still look anti-climactic. Commitment to set up the Troika may not translate into a concrete, institutionalised, ASEAN mechanism, such as a sustained Special Envoy Office. There is nothing in the public domain that might suggest a medium to long-term ASEAN plan for Myanmar is in the works.

In fact, following Thailand’s “success,” things have gone quieter on the Indonesian side. It is unclear whether Jakarta, facing elections early next year, will seek to exercise some continuing leadership on the issue or relent to the alternative approach. For the Indonesian diplomatic establishment, key players under the Special Envoy’s Office will be moved on as per the diplomatic rotation and postings.

Meanwhile, signs of ‘progress’ in the Track 1.5 approach tempts a positive reception from other countries in the region. Yet steps to normalise relations with the junta won’t solve Myanmar’s complex problems. At best, it will provide a short-time remedy in the form of commitments from the junta to be nicer and address the concerns of neighbours by continuing certain economic projects, curbing border crimes, and solving some aspects of the refugee crisis. For ASEAN, this would be a regression to the ways of the authoritarian club of old.

Indonesia should use its role in the Troika over the next year to continue some form of leadership in the hope of leaving behind a framework for future chairs.

What does this look like?

Indonesia could be more active in persuading fellow ASEAN member states of the importance of supporting the 5PC, demanding accountability from the junta, and preventing inadvertent conferment of legitimacy and normalisation of relations between ASEAN and the junta in the hope of giving enough room for a more people-oriented negotiated settlement.

ASEAN must not confer legitimacy until legitimacy is settled inside the country, with a sovereign that has not only the control and function of a state but also the responsibility to protect the entirety of the people. This is why inclusivity and dialogue for a long-lasting peace matter.

The key to this approach will be to reinvigorate relations with mainland ASEAN states, particularly with Thailand. The fragmentation of the ASEAN framework has, in part, emanated from the erosion of amicable inter-personal relationships among high-ranking officials, especially between Indonesia and Thailand. Against the backdrop of changing government leadership and personnel transitions, the time has come to rekindle diplomatic ties and foster effective communication with regards to ASEAN’s approach to the Myanmar issue.

ASEAN might yet come back to this year’s status quo, where the 5PC remains key, giving more time for the people of Myanmar to chart their path. ASEAN needs to remain conscious of the possibility of non-ASEAN countries changing the status quo. If there is nothing sustainable in ASEAN’s Myanmar policies, it risks losing relevance and cohesion in solving politically sensitive regional problems. In the future, ASEAN centrality will continue to lose appeal for its members in favour of bilateral relations with great powers or competing minilaterals and be put on the back seat.

Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma is a Researcher at the Department of International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia