At the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits closing ceremony in November 2022, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen handed over a gavel to Indonesian president Joko Widodo. This symbolic move signifies the humble end of Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN and marks the beginning of Indonesia’s turn to lead Southeast Asia’s premier regional organisation.
ASEAN’s chairmanship rotates annually between its 10 member states by alphabetical order. Coincidentally, Indonesia’s turn came exactly after it had finished holding the presidency of G20 in 2022. Indonesia’s presidency could be considered a mild success, managing to initiate productive talks on common global issues, namely digital transformation, climate change, and religious tolerance. However, it was mired with challenges along the way. Western countries persisted to exploit the supposedly economic forum to raise concern on security issues instead, reasonably due the critical state of global geopolitics at that moment.
Unfortunately however, there’s noticeably an uneasy parallel to be drawn here: Indonesia’s G20 presidency and ASEAN chairmanship will both be held with ongoing (and armed conflicts stealing all the attention. If the G20 has to face the Russia-Ukraine war, ASEAN has to face Myanmar’s domestic crisis. Even worse, ASEAN members have different stances on how to respond and properly resolve the situation, which could hamper concrete solutions. Understandably, high expectations will be placed upon Indonesia as ASEAN’s new chair. Could it possibly bring about orderly, peaceful cooperation in the midst of regional discord?
Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship came at a time where the crisis in Myanmar has intensified to an all-out civil war. When the military overthrew the democratically-elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021, it had only been a political issue. Now, the crisis has transformed into a much more complex problem, affecting not just political-security aspects, but also the socio-economic dimension of everyday life. The military junta routinely clashed with resistance forces coordinated by the civilian National Unity Government (NUG). Dozens of ethnic-based armed groups are also present. Junta forces misuse their firepower to burn down villages and take hundreds of innocent lives.
According to recent UN OCHA reports, over 1,4 million people in Myanmar are displaced due to the crisis. Prices of commodities such as food and fuel have risen due to inflation, deepening the socio-economic stress on ordinary civilians. As such, the international community and civil society organisations scramble to deliver humanitarian assistance. However, operations are often hampered by armed clashes between junta forces and civilian resistance groups as well as threats to aid workers in the field. Living conditions are getting incredibly more concerning day by day.
Though there is one noteworthy recent development regarding this crisis. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 2669 in December 2022. It demanded an end to violence and release of political prisoners—including Aung San Suu Kyi—by the Myanmar junta. This was the first UNSC resolution on Myanmar in 74 years since it became a UN member in 1948. However, the resolution did have three abstentions, which were from China, India, and Russia. Both China and Russia are somewhat supportive of the military junta, becoming its main supplier of weapons, armoured vehicles, and combat aircraft. China’s UN representative argued that a solution to Myanmar’s crisis depends on efforts by Myanmar itself. Russia believed the situation “did not present a significant threat to international security”, thus not warranting a UNSC resolution. Meanwhile, India called for “quiet, patient, and constructive diplomacy” with the junta; otherwise enduring peace and stability would not be achieved.
None of the 10 ASEAN states presently serve as non-permanent members of the UNSC, thus ASEAN did not officially contribute to the resolution. But Kyaw Moe Tun, permanent representative of Myanmar’s (former) civilian government to the UN, stated that it was “pressure from ASEAN” that made the UN Security Council finally adopt the resolution. UNSC members also consulted ASEAN throughout the resolution drafting process, eventually including demand for the junta to adhere to ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC). Furthermore, the resolution itself acknowledges ASEAN’s progress so far, encouraging the international community to support ASEAN-led mechanisms and processes.
Because the resolution came from the UNSC, it is legally-binding, and directly strikes at the military junta. After it was announced, Indonesia’s permanent UN representative—alongside Malaysia and Singapore’s foreign ministries—immediately issued statements welcoming the resolution to support ASEAN’s ongoing efforts. While doable in the UN, such a resolution would be near-impossible to replicate through ASEAN mechanisms.
ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making has operated under the principle of non-interference since the organisation’s founding. Any important decision made by the grouping must be subject to unanimous approval from all member states. The decision also needs to stay clear of interfering in any member’s domestic affairs, especially regarding how they run their internal politics. Nevertheless, ASEAN needs to pick up its pace quickly. The more protracted Myanmar’s crisis becomes, the more likely the world’s major powers will intervene. From an outsider’s perspective, ASEAN credibility would be questioned. The group would seem weak and incapable of solving its own issues.
Currently it has entrusted a Special Envoy to Myanmar who is responsible for observing and ensuring the implementation of 5PC by Myanmar’s junta. However, little progress has been made. ASEAN’s envoy is still barred from meeting Aung San Suu Kyi and other groups that are most opposed to the junta, even though their participation in the peace process is envisioned in 5PC. Cessation of violence and safe delivery of humanitarian assistance that the envoy called for are also unlikely to be fully accommodated by the junta in the field.
The crisis will likely steal most—if not all—of the spotlight throughout ASEAN’s 2023 political-security agenda. Thus, ASEAN under Indonesia’s chairmanship should direct its focus to achieve a more realistic goal, which is maintaining regional stability and cohesiveness, rather than meekly attempting to rescue Myanmar’s democracy. Of course, the latter must still be considered as a long-term objective. But considering the current climate, it is unfortunately still unfeasible.
Furthermore, ASEAN should also concretely show that it listens closely to the voices of Myanmar’s ordinary people. Being the ones most directly impacted by the crisis, Myanmar’s civil society has high expectations for ASEAN to resolve it. If ASEAN decides to continue playing it safe with Myanmar’s junta, the people may be disheartened and distrust the grouping. They may perhaps even be pushed to take on a more “extreme” approach to ensure their livelihood and well-being.
So far, Indonesia has clearly shown its disapproval of Myanmar’s junta, especially its refusal to fully comply with ASEAN’s 5PC. As chairman, Indonesia must be able to demonstrate its determination to bring the crisis to an end—and unite all ASEAN members for the cause.