Time Running Out on Indonesia’s Myanmar Diplomacy

Indonesia had been among the ASEAN member-states that advocated a firm position on diplomacy with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the plotter and leader of the February 2021 coup that overthrew the civilian government in Myanmar. It was resolute in early meetings in April of that year, where member-states gathered in Jakarta to conceive of the now-battered Five Point Consensus, and later formed a cohesive group of ASEAN member-states, which included Singapore that preferred to isolate and deny legitimacy to the military government in Naypyidaw.

Critics can credit Indonesia for credibly moving one of the pillars of that Consensus forward, namely the overwhelming need for humanitarian aid to badly affected populations within the country. Recent developments are a testament to Jakarta’s resolve. At the 42nd ASEAN Summit, held this past May, a joint needs assessment was completed by the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management, particularly through consistent communication with relevant stakeholders and getting assurances that those who need it are not subject to discrimination based on their ethnicity, religion, or political leanings.

However, there are many instances, before and during Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship that have stymied progress on a potential political solution. At no time have President Joko Widodo nor his Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi made any headway in moving the pro-engagement states, particularly Thailand, Cambodia, or Laos from taking non-ASEAN diplomatic initiatives, evidenced by Cambodia’s renegade “cowboy diplomacy” from last year, as well as Thailand’s flurry of meetings, including Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai’s meeting with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing this past April.

Lack of Trust

Some of the lack of progress is not the result of a lack of initiative or resolve. Conflict parties in Myanmar are beset by a serious lack of trust, particularly the State Administrative Council (SAC) and the National Unity Government (NUG). For example, the junta which operates the ruling SAC, declared both the NUG, the Peoples’ Defence Forces (PDFs), and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a group of National League for Democracy (NLD) legislators in exile, as terrorist groups. In the past, trust was violated when the Tatmadaw violated the 2015 ceasefire agreement days after the coup in 2021. While extremely premature, negotiators have great difficulty getting many of the conflict parties to agree on the conditions for talks, let alone advancing dialogue forward, despite Track 1.5 efforts with the assistance of neighboring India and Bangladesh. While China has been present as well, Beijing has been more of a hindrance than help, as it has economic interests at stake with Myanmar’s State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and state-owned enterprises. It also sells arms to the junta, which has prolonged the conflict. Consequently, frantic efforts at shuttle diplomacy by Indonesia have come up far short.

Other initiatives appear dead in the water, such as a plan to push Myanmar to hold a free and inclusive election, but the junta never agreed on a clear timetable. Considering the level of violence and the volume of displaced persons within and outside the country, access and inclusion in an election are all but impossible. Indonesia has also failed to engage with stakeholders outside of the ASEAN region, particularly that of regional hegemonic powers or that of the United Nations, which has left much of the burden on ASEAN in the years since the coup. Compounding the problem is now the absence of a UN Special Envoy after the departure of Noleen Heyzer on June 12. Heyzer was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a negotiated settlement toward the end of her term.

‘No Silver Bullets’

Widodo himself has expressed frustration about the lack of unity among ASEAN states, even suggesting that there’s a hint of “Myanmar fatigue”. But he was more firm in noting the potential for worse failure, such as the potential “break up” of ASEAN itself, noting “there cannot be a party within or outside ASEAN that can benefit from internal strife in Myanmar” – possibly referring to both Singapore and Thailand, who have each contributed a share of more than $1 billion in arms to the junta since the coup, according to Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation on Human Rights in Myanmar. Oddly, the United States, who expressed concerns about the pace of progress, was somewhat satisfied with the effect sanctions were having on Myanmar but haven’t managed to block the steady stream of arms that have been used against innocent civilians. Now as the halfway point in Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship passes, the United States has little else to offer Indonesia other than to temper expectations, noting that no “silver bullets” exist.

However, it is difficult to fault the effort, as Indonesia has taken more aggressive positions than other ASEAN states in trying to reign in the conflict. Case in point, Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Panjaitan, a retired general, who urged Myanmar’s military to allow “qualified” leaders to govern the country as civil strife worsened.  “There are so many militaries in charge of government, but if you are not qualified, why should you be president?” remarked Panjaitan at a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, referencing Gen. Min Aung Hlaing specifically.

But as July and August near, attention among ASEAN states will soon be off Myanmar, with Cambodia’s far-from-credible elections scheduled for July and the transition of power in Thailand from the Thai military government. The pro-reform Move Forward Party have promised to take a different, more Western-oriented approach to foreign policy in Myanmar, but the transition is not occurring until August, and that too if there are no successful challenges to its leader and Prime Minister-elect Pita Limjaroenrat. And worse, next year, Laos takes the reins as ASEAN chair, a country both beholden to Beijing and very supportive of engagement with the military junta. And if past engagement, evidenced by giving legitimacy to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing at high-level meetings, is any indicator, there’s no path to a realistic solution until 2025, when Malaysia takes over. With the pace of violence quickening, that might be far too late.