There are two ways of looking at Indonesia’s handling of the Myanmar crisis during its once-a-decade stint as ASEAN chair. Either Indonesia has been ASEAN chairman for only a few months so shouldn’t be blamed for having, so far, not come up with a meaningful policy on the Myanmar crisis. Or it only has eight months left as the chair and if it fails to devise a policy, the entire ASEAN-led response could crumble when it hands over the chairmanship next year to Laos, which is sure to steer the regional bloc down the path of greater acceptance of Myanmar’s military junta.
Upon the handover, Jakarta needs to have in place more than something resembling a coherent policy toward Myanmar. There needs to be a gift-wrapped policy on which there’s so much accord among member states that Laos cannot walk it back. ASEAN’s policy must be able to sustain itself even when in the hands of the disinterested.
Jakarta’s burden is considerable. Create a policy too tough on the junta and some other ASEAN states, who want the bloc to have nothing to do with the Myanmar crisis, won’t be on board. A policy that is too forceful also risks being jettisoned once Indonesian diplomats are no longer in charge. One too weak, though, would be meaningless.
After a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in early February, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said they “reiterated the united approach” on Myanmar. Shayna Bauchner and Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch deemed this “a misguided cover falsely equating a diversified approach with weakness.” So far, it seems that Jakarta is favoring silent, backroom diplomacy, and could possibly unveil something later this year.
It’s safe to assume that Laos, which takes up the regional chairmanship next year, is not in the least bit interested in democracy in Myanmar. The one-party, communist-run state is hermetic and parochial. It fundamentally believes in the principle of non-involvement in another member state’s affairs. Along with like-minded Thailand, Laos has been engaging with Myanmar’s military junta – formally titled the State Administration Council (SAC) – for some time.
Laos will be the first immediate neighbor of Myanmar to hold the chair since the coup in early 2021. Vientiane is aware that the conflict next door could impact economic activity on their shared Mekong River, a hydropower bonanza for Laos. It knows an uptick in crime at home, which is causing political problems, stems from an explosion of drug activity in Myanmar. As such, Vientiane has every domestic reason to favor an end to the crisis next door (not necessarily the case for the past ASEAN chairs) and the easiest option, it probably reasons, is to help normalize the junta’s rule.
In the aftermath of the military coup in February 2021, Vientiane made the blandest of bland statements. Speaking at a United Nations General Assembly session last September, Saleumxay Kommasith, Laos’ foreign minister, said his country “considers the role played by ASEAN as crucial in creating an environment conducive to a return to normalcy in Myanmar and we should continue to engage Myanmar so as to ensure the continuation of delivery of humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar and to explore ways and means to ensure Myanmar’s full and effective implementation of the Five-Point Consensus towards tangible outcomes.” One imagines that Saleumxay will become ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar next year, as the role tends to change hands along with the chair position – unless Indonesia can make the newly-created “special envoy office” a permanent fitting in Jakarta.
Laos sits squarely in the engage-with-the-junta camp. On April 7, for instance, Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone held a three-way meeting with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s junta leader, about cross-border haze pollution. Laos took part in the Thai-led “informal” meeting with junta officials last December. And it reportedly participated in the (again) Thai-led then led “1.5 track dialogue” with Bangladesh, India, and junta representatives in March. A junta official represented Myanmar at the latest Mekong River Commission (MRC) summit in Vientiane this month.
The latest “State of Southeast Asia” report, a survey of “elite” opinion published annually by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, posed several questions about how ASEAN should move forward on the Myanmar crisis. Just 1.9 percent of Loatian elites wanted the bloc “to utilize harder methods to effectively curtail the SAC,” well below the regional average of 18 percent. Some 2.8 percent of Laotian elites said Myanmar should be expelled from ASEAN, again the lowest in the region. The majority (43 percent) said ASEAN shouldn’t interfere, well above the regional average.
Vientiane will also be influenced by its main partners. China, its main economic patron, is increasingly siding with the junta in Myanmar. Vietnam, another economic partner, wants to have nothing to do with this crisis. Thailand has shown that it prefers close engagement with the junta, although that might change after a general election next month. Laos has improved ties with Russia over the past year or so, and Moscow is firmly on the side of the junta.
Also worth mentioning, Laos is rather distant from Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, the regional states that purportedly want to develop a more robust ASEAN approach to the crisis. And it is arguably the Southeast Asian state with the least developed ties to Western democracies, which will limit their ability to lobby ASEAN for a response that focuses on democracy and human rights.
It’s inconceivable that the junta in Naypyidaw hasn’t partly factored Laos’ chairmanship of ASEAN into its thinking. After all, Laos has already held two national steering committee meetings to prepare for the handover, and spoke about it with Chinese officials on Saleumxay’s recent visit to Beijing. If the junta goes ahead with its plans to hold “elections” this year (which may or may not happen) that would exert even more pressure on Laos, once ASEAN chair, to accept the military’s rule as fait accompli. There cannot be another wasted year; waiting until Malaysia takes the chair in 2025 will be too late.
That ought to focus minds in Jakarta, as well as in the rest of the world. It’s the next eight months or nothing. If nothing, Indonesia will be the steward of ASEAN’s failure. Laos will be the gravedigger.