Southeast Asian foreign ministers met in Indonesia’s capital on Friday for talks overshadowed by the deteriorating situation in military-ruled Myanmar despite an agenda focused on food and energy security and cooperation in finance and health.
Myanmar belongs to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but the annual ministers’ retreat is being held in Jakarta without its foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin.
His forced absence is a result of Myanmar’s lack of cooperation in implementing a five-step agreement made in 2021 between ASEAN leaders and Myanmar’s military leader, Senior Geeral Min Aung Hlaing.
In the agreement, Myanmar’s military leaders promised to allow a special ASEAN envoy to meet with jailed ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others to foster dialogue aimed at easing the crisis, set off by the military’s seizure of power two years ago.
Last year, when ASEAN was chaired by Cambodia, Min Aung Hlaing was not invited to the November meeting of ASEAN leaders after Myanmar declined to let an ASEAN envoy meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.
Analysts said the military takeover in Myanmar loomed large over the foreign ministers’ meeting, even as Indonesia, the chair of ASEAN this year, seeks to dampen concerns that the issue will hold the bloc “hostage.”
Kicking off the country’s turn as chair of the regional bloc, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said late last month that ASEAN will continue contributing to making Indo-Pacific a peaceful and stable region and maintaining regional economic growth.
In her opening remarks Friday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the ministers were meeting in the midst of immense global challenges in which the Indo-Pacific region is not immune, including geopolitical, food, energy, financial and ecological crises, as well as major power rivalries that could spill over and potentially destabilize the region.
“Internally, we are facing the situation in Myanmar that tests our credibility,” Marsudi said, adding that “as a family, we dedicate a working lunch to have an in-depth and frank discussion on the implementation of the five-point consensus.”
Marsudi said earlier that Indonesia will ensure the focus is on the development of the regional bloc as a community and to capitalize on ASEAN’s economic growth.
“The issue of Myanmar will not be allowed to hold hostage the process of strengthening the ASEAN community development,” Marsudi said last month in outlining Indonesia’s foreign policy for the year.
She said ASEAN was disappointed by its lack of progress over the past two years in Myanmar, despite a growing countermovement and global threats of sanctions and political exclusion.
“Despite all the efforts of the chair and all ASEAN member countries, the implementation of the five-point consensus by the Myanmar military junta has not made significant progress,” she said.
Marsudi said Indonesia is setting up an office of an ASEAN special envoy on Myanmar in Jakarta to spearhead how the bloc deals with the crisis and she will seek to engage with all stakeholders in Myanmar, noting that it is crucial to enable a national dialogue to address the crisis.
Randy Nandyatama, an international analyst from Gajah Mada University, recommended that ASEAN review its bedrock principles of non-interference in other members’ affairs and decisions by consensus.
“Some of its mechanisms are too loose, making it difficult for member countries to comply with the existing principles,” he said, adding that resolving the Myanmar issue is important not only for maintaining stability and prosperity in the region, but also for strengthening the legitimacy and functioning of ASEAN itself as a regional organization that can build dialogue with Myanmar.
“Resolving the crisis in Myanmar is the main challenge of Indonesia’s chairmanship,” Nandyatama said.