Abstract: Five months into the military coup of 1 February, Myanmar is on an increasingly fragile trajectory with clear signs of conflict escalation. World attention tapered off after the first few weeks and shifted to other hot spots, including in the Middle East. Regional ASEAN diplomacy and western sanctions pressure have failed to provide a breakthrough while influential neighboring countries are locked in competition and preoccupied with the COVID-19 Pandemic. The weakened multilateral system seems unable to respond decisively to growing mass protests and violent repression by the military. Basic levels of protection for civilians and essential services have been eroded amid a resurging COVID-19 Pandemic.
National cohesion in Myanmar has come under severe pressure. Although the country has weathered low-intensity conflicts over the years and state disintegration is a remote scenario, regional stability hinges on peace and prosperity in Myanmar which is located between Chinese and Indian spheres of influence. Democratic transition has remained incomplete in Myanmar since 2011. Inclusive civic dialogue can help reduce tensions through leveraging communications technology for digital grass-roots engagement, especially with Myanmar’s youth. This might restore a modicum of calm and provide a conducive environment for peace talks. International friends of Myanmar and ASEAN states are well placed to provide critical support, in line with ASEAN commitments. Civic digital dialogue could also boost human capital for addressing longer-term challenges, including the impact of climate change and the Pandemic.
Evolving Conflict Dynamics- Violence Expands from the Center to the Periphery
While renowned National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, charges of corruption were formalized in June concerning a charitable foundation, in addition to alleged breaches of COVID-19 protocol and communications regulations. After some delay, a court hearing was held on 26 May. Meanwhile, the number of detained civilians grew over tenfold from the first weeks of mass protests to 6,000. On 30 June, the government released 2,300 detainees nationwide, including media and NGO workers who had not committed violent acts. The junta prepared indictments against protesters and 64 persons received death sentences as reported in media in early June.
Some 211,000 persons were internally displaced, according to recent UNHCR figures and the death toll neared 900 persons in late June, according to NGO observer groups. Since the beginning of 2021, the civilian casualty rate in Myanmar is among the highest worldwide, second only to conflicts in Ethiopia and Nigeria. Businesses were severely affected, and several factories were closed; several large international firms divested from Myanmar or are pausing investments. After a general strike in February, anti-junta protests continued in northern Kachin State, southern Dawei, Sagaing region and in the commercial capital Yangon.
A Committee representing the disbanded parliament (CRPH) was formed and a “National Unity Government” (NUG) established in April. The shadow government issued a proclamation for the release of all political prisoners, return of the armed forces to the barracks, ending the violence and accountability for those responsible for atrocities after the coup. The NUG also pledged remedial action for Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority and their rights in Rakhine state of Myanmar where over 100,000 persons had fled to safety in Bangladesh in the 2017 military crackdown against suspected terrorists.
By the end of June, military repression continued unabated. Weapons of war were used against demonstrators and neighborhood vigilante groups loyal to the authorities targeted protesters. Internet services were frequently blocked since April as the military rolled out a restrictive new cyber security law. The Facebook social media platform which was used by half of the country’s population as ubiquitous news source and messaging service was shut down. independent media outlets were shut down or fined, and over 90 journalists imprisoned. Relatively few defections from the armed forces have occurred, mostly from lower ranking navy and air force members as well as units constituted with former rebels in 2015. Some reports suggest that soldiers melted away to join the Civil Disobedience Movement in an estimated 800 total of cases, but it remains unclear how many of them ended up taking arms for the resistance.
In another more serious development, some of the ethnic minority militias in Myanmar’s border areas with long-running insurgencies against the central government have started to mobilize. There were reports that urban dissenters were joining their ranks and new ‘civilian armies’ were constituted as offshoots of the Civil Defense Movement while other protesters just sought temporary shelter among militias. Several of these groups -including the Kachin in the north and the Karen in the east- publicly denounced the coup and stated they would defend protesters in the territory they control. Other ethnic militias appeared to be sitting on the fence about fighting in urban areas. Experts believe that the territorial ethnic armies have widely diverging military capabilities and are unlikely to mount a serious challenge to the armed forces. However, ethnic militia are a possible factor in pan-ethnic solidarity supporting talks and might become ‘king makers’ in the event of a rift inside the Myanmar military forces.
On 22 June, armed demonstrators of the ‘Mandalay PDF’ group engaged armed forces in a sustained urban firefight at Myanmar’s second largest city. In areas bordering Thailand, Karen state saw intensified armed clashes in May when over 100,000 persons were displaced and some sought temporary safety in Thailand. Confrontations were also reported from Chin state bordering India and from northern Kachin and Shan states. Well-informed observers warned about a trend towards generalized revolt. unless regional or international initiatives can manage to stem the escalation. The country may have come close to becoming ungovernable and some analysts warn of impending state collapse and prolonged civil war as in the case of Syria.
International Response Patterns- Sanctions and Regional Diplomacy
The UN Security Council discussed the situation in Myanmar three times since the coup and issued a presidential statement on 10 March. The Council repeatedly called for restraint and restoring democratic transition in Myanmar but its closed meeting on 18 June 2021 fell short of deciding on an arms embargo. The Council demanded that the constitutional order should be respected but did not condemn the military coup outright, due to the position of China and Russia that defended national sovereignty. China publicly rejected sanctions as “inappropriate intervention” on 3 July during the 9th World Peace Forum held in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that the primary goal was to help Myanmar find a political solution as soon as possible through dialogue and consultation.
The UN Generally Assembly (GA) passed a first non-binding resolution on Myanmar on 18 June, which condemned the coup and called for a stop in the flow of arms to the country and the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior civilian officials. The UN Secretary-General reiterated his call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi on 1 July following mass releases of detainees in Myanmar. He also expressed deep concern over continued intimidation and violence as well as arbitrary arrests. In early July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned of political crisis in Myanmar evolving into a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe” with potential for massive insecurity and fallout in the region. The SG’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, visited neighboring states of Myanmar but was not permitted to enter the country.
Outside the UN, international responses featured moral appeals, public condemnation and the use of targeted sanctions. The G7 Foreign and Development Ministers Statement of 5 May roundly condemned the coup and called for immediate cessation of violence; the G7 pledged support to ASEAN efforts in conflict resolution. In mid-May, US, UK and Canada imposed a new round of coordinated sanctions which were expanded from a dozen military figures to state enterprises known as significant income earners (gems and timber industries). In early July, the US led additional sanctions measures against 22 members of the regime and close relatives, also targeting three Chinese companies for providing support to the Myanmar regime through business dealings with the sanctioned Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited.
EU sanctions were expanded to include public timber companies from Myanmar, aligning with earlier UK measures. The US and UK placed sanctions on the State Administration Council (SAC), the junta’s governing body while the EU placed sanctions on the Myanmar War Veterans Organization, due to its close connection with the Armed Forces. Japan warned in mid-May that assistance to Myanmar could be frozen beyond a halt of new aid programs decided in February, seeking to use its considerable leverage as a top donor for Myanmar. Canada said it imposed additional sanctions on individuals and entities tied to the Myanmar armed forces, indicating it was prepared to take further steps. New Zealand imposed a travel ban on the Myanmar junta and stopped all aid that could benefit them; effectively suspending all military and high-level political contacts with the country.
Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing remained the de-facto leader of the country. Apart from minor changes in the SAC, the junta government stayed in place. Experts assess that the army leader has no intention to curb Myanmar’s economic progress. Unlike during previous military rule in Myanmar in the 1980s, a semi-civilian composition of the new cabinet in the Supreme Administrative Council (SAC) shows that the military is prepared to ride out international pressure and pursue national development. However, analysts based in the region see a risk of Myanmar backsliding several decades and reversing gains from the democratic transition.
ASEAN Regional Leverage vs. Geopolitical Interests
Early regional reactions to the coup in Myanmar were muted, with the notable exception of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Following the ASEAN consensus principle, current ASEAN Chair Brunei appealed for respect of ASEAN’s principles of rule of law, democracy and human rights. The regional block tried to engage the junta during the 24 April ASEAN Leaders Meeting which the Burmese coup leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing attended. Yet he subsequently backtracked stating that stability was an essential precondition for ASEAN peace talks and implementing the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus from the summit. ASEAN followed up with a high-level mission to Yangon in early June to meet the junta leader again and seek his views on a list of nominees for an ASEAN special envoy for Myanmar agreed among ASEAN member states.
The junta’s foreign minister participated in a special ASEAN-China Foreign Minister’s meeting in Chongqing in early June, amid speculations that China was warming up to the military leadership in Myanmar. Chinese officials had issued veiled criticism in the early phase of the coup while parallel Chinese linkages were forged with the civilian NUG. A tuning point occurred in mid-March when protesters injured Chinese workers at a Yangon factory complex which was damaged and looted. In a scenario of widespread instability and key infrastructure under threat, China might resort to pressure NUG and the junta into a compromise, according to regional experts; some analysts point to a recent Chinese troop concentration at the important border town of Jiegao.
China’s southern Yunnan province borders Myanmar where Chin state became one of the recent flashpoints in violence. The area is important for China’s transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The plan features a high-speed train link from China to the Indian Ocean, alongside gas pipeline projects to Myanmar coastal areas, as well as the Muse-Mandalay highway. China has also pursued a mega-hydro project north of Myitkyina which was stalled in 2011 over environmental concerns and developed an industrial park for the town. In addition, Chinese investors have snapped estate and land in the Yangon area, despite restrictive rules.
China’s President Xi Yiping undertook a milestone visit to Myanmar in January 2020, where he signed 33 agreements. Myanmar’s strategic value in these schemes was recently underscored by the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in mid-January 2021 as senior-most foreign official to arrive since November’s election. In military cooperation, China as a traditional ally has taken a relatively low-key approach with Myanmar. Russia appeared more eager to capitalize on arms cooperation with senior visits demonstrating that Moscow is not beholden to western sanctions policies.
Like the many economic and investment ties between Thailand and Myanmar, other regional partners have most likely adopted a “wait and see” approach before gradually re-engaging with the junta-led government. However, Thailand voiced concerns of spillover from the violence in Myanmar, after refugees had crossed the long border; Thailand considers itself as a ‘front line state’ and has recalled its “quiet and discreet diplomacy” efforts underway.
India as Myanmar’s northwestern neighbor already hosts many refugees from the Christian Chin minority. 15,000 refugees have arrived in northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur since the coup, according to UNHCR figures. These arrivals remain displaced and are hosted by local communities. Larger waves of refugees from Myanmar would affect the delicate local political and security environment. Myanmar’s military has at times coordinated with Indian security forces to control extremists and “geopolitical intricacy” overrides India’s stand on the current crisis.
Similarly, China does not want to see spillover from Myanmar tensions upset its southern industrialization schemes. It was India that delivered the first 1.5mln doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Myanmar in mid-January when China’s global vaccine diplomacy took shape. Yet both powerful neighbors of Myanmar are unlikely to come to an understanding how to prevent a worst-case scenario, given their geopolitical antagonisms in the wake of recent US and Quad countries cooperation.
Configuring Innovative Dialogue for 21st Century- Digital Engagement with Myanmar Conflict Parties
In view of the high stakes from ongoing violence and the risk of serious escalation, the time may have come for an alternative approach in Myanmar peace support. Assisted by new technology, digital dialogue at the grass-roots level could provide an opportunity for reflection and connect segments of the population and conflict parties. Such innovative dialogue can also tap into Myanmar’s human capital, especially youth who tend to be tech-savvy and eager to express their views. ASEAN’s supportive and caring posture expressed in its 24 April Leader’s Meeting Communique lays out ASAEAN regional solidarity in a people-centered approach rather than prescriptive intervention. ASEAN is also well placed for assisting with required technology from its industrialized members and influential countries in Asia.
Newly boosted by the global switch to digital in the COVID-19 Pandemic, state-of -the-art communication technology and tools exist to connect hundreds of participants in online dialogue sessions. UN peace missions in Yemen, Syria and Libya have utilized such digital outreach to enrich ongoing negotiations and tapped into AI solutions for evaluating feedback. The work of senior negotiators might become more hybrid with online inputs and analysis, although scholars note a “missing sense of peace” in virtual interactions. On the other hand, benefits exist from greater inclusion, shorter iterative meetings, and equality in interaction. Significant peace constituencies including women, youth and minorities can be included online from the very start than in most traditional mediations.
Myanmar has fertile ground for digital grass-roots dialogue. Younger citizens, including in conflict areas have shown great skill in networked cooperation, providing practical livelihoods advice and psychosocial support for years. In view of restrictions from the junta, protesters have resorted to virtual private network (VPN) solutions to ensure connectivity. Some younger officials and members of the security apparatus may also participate in a “sovereignty enhancing” dialogue aimed at better governance and reforms. The technological challenges including interference from authorities are not insurmountable.
Accompaniment could be provided via inter-regional cooperation between ASEAN and the EU, which remains under-utilized, despite strong shared business interests. The multi-sector dialogue template (“Enhanced Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument” -E-READI) has ample room for configuring the required scaling effects in technical assistance in sectoral policy dialogues concerning Myanmar’s specific situation. Notably, Facebook and Instagram banned Myanmar’s military and military-controlled state media in late February, citing “exceptionally severe human rights abuses and the clear risk of future military-initiated violence in Myanmar”.
Pivot to a New Generation Compact in Myanmar- Tackling Global Challenges
Innovative digital dialogue as an early confidence building process can provide a platform for addressing center-periphery relations in Myanmar which lie at the core of many minority grievances. Myanmar could start developing its “new generational compact” including on regional autonomy and decentralization. The country never managed to forge a “Second Panglong Agreement” after independence and the death of General Aung San in 1948.
Social cohesion and enabling social capital for addressing global challenges of climate change and Pandemic resilience are urgent for Myanmar. The devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008 showed the country’s vulnerability to extreme weather events in low-lying coastal areas. Myanmar’s Pandemic response also requires joint mobilization, due to rising infection levels nearing peaks of last October. Medical staff were instrumental in launching the Civil Disobedience Movement; work stoppages and insecurity have affected the health sector where recent new COVID-19 restrictions are hampering humanitarian access and response. The impact has been dramatic in interrupting remote outreach on public health prevention and counseling of victims of gender-based violence.
In the absence of consensus among superpowers to find a joint formula for lending ASEAN political efforts additional clout, or tactical convergence between the US and China for stabilizing Myanmar jointly as a middle ground, innovative civic dialogue should be seriously considered. More punitive approaches may end up driving the beleaguered country deeper into the arms of China and exacerbate violent conflict. Grass-roots engagement with critical peace constituencies in Myanmar could prevent transforming the current crisis into a proxy fight between global players and second tier regional powers, including India which has asserted itself in border tensions with China and as part of the US-led Quad group of states to hedge against China’s growing influence in ASEAN and APEC Regions.
ASEAN Summit 2023: Shaping Southeast Asia’s Future and Beyond
The 43rd ASEAN Summit held in Jakarta from September 5th to 7th, 2023, carries profound implications for the future of Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region. As I reflect on the outcomes of this summit, it is evident that ASEAN has reaffirmed its role as a vital regional player and a catalyst for cooperation and progress. The theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth” encapsulates the essence of this summit. It underscores that ASEAN is not merely a geographical region but a dynamic force at the heart of growth and development in the Indo-Pacific. This theme reflects a vision of ASEAN that is forward-looking, ambitious, and committed to addressing the multifaceted challenges of our times. The adoption of the ASEAN Concord IV, a comprehensive blueprint for ASEAN’s future, is a testament to the organization’s resolve. It emphasizes the importance of security, economic growth, and a broader regional role. It is noteworthy that ASEAN is not content with maintaining the status quo; instead, it seeks to shape the evolving dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, placing itself at the center of growth and stability.
Addressing security concerns within the region is paramount. The commitment to combating illicit drugs, maintaining a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, and upholding international maritime law in the South China Sea reflects ASEAN’s dedication to preserving regional stability. In a world marked by geopolitical tensions, these commitments send a clear message that ASEAN is committed to ensuring peace and security within its borders. Economic growth and sustainability are core principles embedded within the ASEAN Concord IV. The emphasis on balanced growth, economic disparities, innovation, and environmental sustainability demonstrates a commitment to the well-being of all ASEAN citizens. It recognizes that economic progress must be inclusive and sustainable to truly benefit the entire region. ASEAN’s expanding regional role, as outlined in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), is a significant development. It acknowledges the organization’s potential to influence the broader geopolitical landscape. By emphasizing the importance of international law and mechanisms for resolving regional disputes, ASEAN positions itself as a responsible and proactive player in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Myanmar crisis presents one of the most pressing challenges in the region. ASEAN’s condemnation of the violence and its commitment to the Five-Point Consensus, along with the Troika mechanism, reflect a united front to address this complex issue. While the path to resolution is challenging, ASEAN’s engagement sends a strong message that it is actively working toward a peaceful resolution. The gesture of welcoming Timor-Leste into the ASEAN family signifies an expansion of the organization’s influence. While details are yet to be finalized, this move reflects ASEAN’s willingness to embrace new members and deepen its regional engagement. The decision to elevate the ASEAN Secretariat to the status of the ASEAN Headquarters is a step towards enhancing the organization’s effectiveness. It reflects a recognition that a strong and centralized institution is essential for the successful implementation of ASEAN’s goals. Global engagement is also a key aspect of ASEAN’s vision. The organization’s concern for the Middle East conflict and its support for a two-state solution demonstrate a commitment to peace and stability beyond its immediate region. This reflects ASEAN’s aspiration to contribute positively to global affairs.
The 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta has positioned ASEAN as a central force for unity, cooperation, and progress in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. The adoption of the ASEAN Concord IV and the various commitments made during the summit reflect a vision of ASEAN that is forward-thinking, proactive, and committed to addressing regional and global challenges. As we move forward, it is crucial to recognize that ASEAN’s role extends beyond regional boundaries. It is a beacon of hope for collaborative and inclusive growth, a promoter of peace and security, and a responsible global player. In a world characterized by uncertainty, ASEAN’s resilience and determination offer a promising path for a better future not only for its member states but for the entire Indo-Pacific region and the world. The outcomes of the 43rd ASEAN Summit demonstrate that the organization’s principles, when translated into action, can shape the course of regional and global affairs, making it a cornerstone of stability and progress in the 21st century.
Beyond what has been discussed, the outcomes of the 43rd ASEAN Summit also shed light on several crucial aspects that warrant further examination in the realm of International Relations. One such aspect is the commitment to upholding international maritime law in the South China Sea. This commitment underscores the importance of maritime security and the complex web of territorial disputes in the region. It invites students and scholars of international relations to explore the intricate dynamics of maritime sovereignty, the role of international law, and the implications of these disputes on regional stability. Moreover, the ASEAN Concord IV’s emphasis on innovation resonates with the growing relevance of technology and innovation in global affairs. It encourages a deeper exploration of how technological advancements impact international relations, from cybersecurity challenges to the transformative potential of artificial intelligence. Understanding the nexus between technology and diplomacy becomes increasingly vital in an era of rapid technological change. The adoption of the Troika mechanism as part of the response to the Myanmar crisis offers a practical example of conflict resolution mechanisms within regional organizations. It invites students to analyze the effectiveness of such mechanisms and their potential application in other regional conflicts. The study of conflict resolution strategies is a fundamental component of international relations research and education. Furthermore, the summit’s focus on environmental sustainability aligns with the global discourse on climate change and ecological preservation. Students can delve into the implications of regional organizations like ASEAN engaging in environmental issues and the role they can play in advancing global environmental agendas, including the Paris Agreement. The potential expansion of ASEAN to include Timor-Leste prompts discussions on the dynamics of regional integration and the prerequisites for membership. It encourages students to explore the criteria and processes for joining regional organizations and the implications for both existing members and the prospective entrant. Such inquiries are central to the study of regionalism in international relations.
Biden’s ASEAN Summit Absence Sparks Multilateral Concerns
The recent convening of the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta serves as a poignant reminder of the pivotal role that multilateral cooperation continues to play in upholding peace, stability, and prosperity across the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. President Joe Biden’s conspicuous absence at the ASEAN Summit sends a clear message that the United States prioritizes rivalry over multilateral cooperation, as well as a penchant for narrowly defined alliances instead of comprehensive multilateral engagement.
This decision underscores a strategic focus in Washington – one that seeks to further its interests through alternative avenues. Such a move carries profound implications for regional dynamics. Even as the summit was postponed to accommodate the U.S. President’s schedule
It implies that the U.S. may increasingly lean towards pursuing its strategic interests through alternative pathways, possibly emphasizing bilateral or smaller multilateral arrangements. However, this approach risks undercutting the broader benefits that robust multilateral engagement offers, especially in a region as diverse and interconnected as the Asia-Pacific.
Multilateral cooperation, exemplified by forums such as the ASEAN Summit, provides an invaluable platform for addressing intricate regional challenges, facilitating dialogue, and bridging gaps among nations with diverse interests. By favoring more limited partnerships, the U.S. may inadvertently curtail its capacity to shape regional developments comprehensively and inclusively.
In the face of mounting geopolitical complexities, China stands out for its steadfast commitment to fostering collaboration and peaceful development. This commitment sharply contrasts with the United States’ preference for bilateral and “small-multilateral” formats.
China acknowledges the enduring value of multilateralism in promoting regional stability and development. Its engagement with ASEAN underscores cooperation, economic interdependence, and peaceful coexistence, aligning closely with the goal of establishing an atmosphere conducive to dialogue and collaboration.
The United States’ strategy towards ASEAN appears motivated by a desire to maintain the organization’s division rather than unity. Such instability aligns with Washington’s geopolitical interests in the region, as an unsettled ASEAN is perceived as more susceptible to U.S. influence and manipulation. This approach risks undermining ASEAN’s unity and its collective pursuit of shared objectives.
While some regional countries may be tempted to align more closely with the United States for various reasons, they must exercise caution and evaluate the potential implications of such alignment. The U.S. has displayed a willingness to foment chaos and turmoil in the region to enhance certain countries’ dependence on it. This approach poses significant risks to the stability and resilience of Asia-Pacific nations.
Over the past decade, China’s unwavering commitment to a comprehensive strategic partnership with ASEAN has yielded numerous benefits for the region. Expanding trade between China and ASEAN underscores the importance of open markets and economic interdependence on a global scale.
China’s support for pragmatic collaboration initiatives has not only spurred economic prosperity but also facilitated cultural exchange and people-to-people interactions throughout Southeast Asia. This approach, founded on principles of shared growth and mutual benefit, aligns seamlessly with ASEAN’s tenets, bolstering the organization’s influence in regional affairs.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s declaration to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with ASEAN countries and work towards a “Code of Conduct” underscores China’s unwavering commitment to transforming the South China Sea into a region characterized by peace, friendship, and cooperation.
Throughout its history, ASEAN’s resilience and centrality have remained defining features. This resilience empowers ASEAN to withstand external pressures and manipulation, ensuring its decisions reflect the collective interests of its member states. The China-ASEAN alliance strengthens this resilience, safeguarding ASEAN’s independence and its ability to carve out its destiny.
As the United States continues to pursue its geopolitical objectives through diverse means, the Asia-Pacific region finds itself at a crucial juncture. ASEAN members must remain steadfast in adhering to the principles of dialogue, cooperation, and peaceful growth that have underpinned the organization’s success for decades.
In this context, China’s unwavering support for ASEAN’s vision and its resolute commitment to multilateralism become all the more significant. China contributes to regional stability and development by promoting cooperation, economic growth, and people-to-people exchanges, reinforcing ASEAN’s pivotal role as a critical force for peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific.
Each ASEAN meeting serves as a litmus test for genuine multilateralism, with participating nations carefully identifying between actors genuinely seeking collaboration and those knowingly contributing to conflict. Given the current political climate, Washington’s policy decisions have huge repercussions, with any miscalculation potentially leading to unfavourable outcomes and increased diplomatic discontent.
Consequently, the United States must carefully weigh the long-term repercussions of its approach and strike a judicious balance between bilateral alliances and active engagement in global forums. A more comprehensive and inclusive engagement strategy in the Asia-Pacific can foster trust, spur collaboration, and secure a future marked by peace and prosperity for all nations in the region.
Regulating Quality Journalism: A Mission Impossible Against Algorithm
Authors: Hanif Abdul Halim and Haekal Al Asyari*
Due to the shift in modes of communication from mass to personalized media; concerns of digital platforms monopolizing the news have risen. Several issues surrounding publisher rights, disinformation, and journalist ethics become a wakeup call for legislators.
The idea of a regulation that holds global digital platforms responsible for providing economic value to news content produced by local and national media has surfaced since National Press Day in 2020. On the commemoration of National Press Day last February, President Joko Widodo requested the Ministry of Communication and Informatics, the Press Council, and related stakeholders to finalize the clauses regarding publisher rights that will be included in the Presidential Decree Bill.
The Indonesian media industry has been anxious for quite some time with the presence of applications such as Baca Berita (Babe) which seem to gain more profit from news content than the media outlets that produce it. With the Bill including publisher rights, the media will receive some form of royalty for content distributed on digital platforms such as search engines (Google), social media (Facebook or X), and news aggregators (Google News, Yahoo News, LINE News) that fetches media content with no revenue share. Until today, the Bill in question ‘Presidential Regulation (Perpres) concerning Digital Platform Responsibility for Quality Journalism’ still awaits the President’s approval.
The Bill’s pain points
Seeing its purpose, the draft regulation considers several things related to the responsibility of digital platform companies to prevent fake news and respect for copyrights. Such companies are expected to be responsible for supporting quality journalism by upholding information sovereignty and algorithm transparency. In addition, media companies and digital platforms are also asked to work together regarding profit sharing to protect publisher rights.
However, the Bill is also seen as a threat by digital platforms and content creators. There are at least two issues of the draft that must be highlighted. First is the potential for abuse of power from the government which could endanger freedom of information. This is based on the obligation of digital platform companies to prevent the dissemination and commercialization of content that is deemed to not be in accordance with the Journalistic Code of Ethics. According to article 7(b) of the Bill, Digital platforms are required to remove content which are inconsistent with the Journalistic Code of Ethics based on recommendations from the Press Council. Currently, anyone could make a living in the digital realm if they understand the rules of the game. However, the presence of this regulation will give the Press Council power over which content creators could be monetized and which cannot.
Second, the public is also worried that in the future digital platforms would oppose to the regulation or even threaten to leave Indonesia if the Bill is left unrevised. Until now, at least two platform companies (Meta and Google) have expressed their objections. Google has stated that if the draft is issued without revisions, it could potentially limit news online and only benefit a small number of conventional media companies, leaving a negative impact on the digital news ecosystem.
Quality journalism and digital platforms
For the most part, quality journalism aims to uncover and educate readers about facts that are matters of public concerns by keeping with journalistic ethics of independence, transparency, trustworthiness, and objectivity. But it is a contention whether all digital platforms involve themselves in the activities of journalism and whether adherence to the code of ethics could ensure quality.
The Bill assumes digital platforms to be under the same scope of ‘journalists’ bound by the Journalistic Code of Ethics. According to the Code, they are expected to act independently, produce news that is accurate, balanced and in good faith. Furthermore, Digital platforms would be expected to fact-check the information, as well as to immediately retract, correct, and verify inaccurate news accompanied by an apology to its readers, listeners and or viewers. This would also apply to user generated content (“UGC”) since the Code of Ethics is synchronized with the Cyber Media reporting guidelines.
The algorithmic dilemma
The stressing point is who will determine whether a journalistic product is in accordance with the Code or not. For those who are in favor of the Bill, believe that the Journalistic Code of Ethics must be trusted to the Press Council as the institution possessing legal basis. With a note that the ‘executors’ of the bill ought to be independent, professional, and free from the interests of the Government, digital platforms or media companies.
On the contrary, those who are against the Bill criticizes the danger of granting authority to a non-governmental body the power to determine what content appears online and which news publishers are allowed to earn advertising revenue.
It is a contestation between the longstanding presence of the Press Council as a main actor in protecting freedom of the press and the inevitable algorithm of digital platforms. The speed and accuracy of the algorithms owned by Meta, Google, and others alike in recent years have become the answer to people’s needs for fast and accurate information. The algorithm allows search engines to move in a fraction of a second, presenting news personalized according to our interests.
Regulating digital platforms and news media
Efforts to regulate news and the digital media are not only carried out in Indonesia. In 2022 the Government of Canada issued a law to ensure fair profit sharing between digital platforms and news providers as well as strengthen media collective bargaining. The Canadian government observed the dominance of platform companies in the media ecosystem to be unbalanced because of platform providers earning far greater profits compared to media companies that produced the news.
Similarly, the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) was issued to regulate the relationship between digital platforms and conventional media, stipulating that conventional media can request special treatment from digital platforms in relation to the way their content is moderated. Such special treatment includes platforms providing reasons why content will be rented and guarantees that their complaints will be ‘processed and resolved with priority and without undue delay’. If the media find that their content or news is often stung – if not removed – by digital platforms, then the act provides space for media and digital platforms to amicably solve their disputes.
Ensuring freedom of information
One of the signs of deteriorating media industry is the decline of conventional media newsroom; despite their presence of guarding the nation for decades. The impact that digital companies have had on this situation is difficult to deny. With their system and algorithm, digital platforms could become an oligopoly group that controls the mass media market in Indonesia.
All in all, the Government’s support behind the Bill is motivated by the best of intentions. However, it should be kept in mind that ensuring quality journalism must always be well balanced with the freedom of information and public interest.
*Haekal Al Asyari is a Law Lecturer at Universitas Gadjah Mada and a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Debrecen, Hungary.
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