Indonesia Says It Is Working Hard for a Myanmar Breakthrough

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Indonesia Says It Is Working Hard for a Myanmar Breakthrough

In an interview late last week, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi offered some hints about the country’s approach to the conflict.

Indonesia Says It Is Working Hard for a Myanmar Breakthrough

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi gives a speech in Jakarta, Indonesia, on April 11, 2023.

Credit: Twitter/Menteri Luar Negeri Republik Indonesia

Enough of Indonesia’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has now elapsed that it is fair to ask how much the country has achieved in bringing the conflict in Myanmar to an end. Five months after taking the ceremonial gavel from last year’s chair, Cambodia, the country’s political crisis shows no signs of resolution, and in some respects appears to be worsening. The most recent sign of this was the horrific air strike by the military last month in Sagaing Region, which is estimated to have killed at least 170 people, including many children.

Late last year, Indonesia took up the chairmanship with promises, or at least expectations, that it would take a harder line against the military junta that seized power in February 2021. Jakarta was among a handful of ASEAN governments that had previously been most frustrated by the military government’s lack of efforts to implement the bloc’s Five-Point Consensus peace plan, which called for an immediate cessation of violence and inclusive dialogue involving “all parties” to the crisis.

While last year’s chair, Cambodia, expressed occasional frustration with the military administration, it did not make any attempt to reach out to the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) and treated the junta as a good faith interlocutor, even as it was using increasingly lethal methods to eliminate the armed resistance to its rule. Indeed, it can be said that Cambodia’s approach essentially boiled down to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s confidence that he could reach a personal understanding with junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

Just as Indonesia’s lack of public announcements was starting to become notable, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi gave an interview to Reuters in which she revealed some of what Indonesian diplomats have been cooking up over the past five months. In an attempt to make a breakthrough in the conflict, she said, diplomats under her watch had now held more than 60 “engagements” with all parties involved, which in addition to the military junta also include ethnic armed organizations and the NUG.

Reuters also quoted comments that Retno gave at a press conference later on Friday, in which she said it was vital to secure the trust of all those involved. “Indonesia is using non-megaphone diplomacy, this aims to build trust with all stakeholders, so they want to talk to us,” she said. “Quiet diplomacy does not mean we did not do anything. In fact, for the past four months, Indonesia has done many things.”

Retno’s comments came as Indonesia prepares to host the ASEAN Summit and related meetings in Labuan Bajo, a town on the island of Flores. Retno confirmed Myanmar’s generals would again be barred from participating, as has become customary over the past two years.

The foreign minister’s comments suggest that Indonesia is holding fast to the Five-Point Consensus, despite previous suggestions, including from some Southeast Asian officials, that ASEAN might have to abandon its optimistic framework for something more punitive. They also suggest that Indonesia views continued engagement with the Myanmar military as more valuable than the openly punitive approach that many outside observers have long advocated.

“We tried to be as inclusive as possible,” Retno told Reuters. “Indonesia continues trying to play a bridging role to reduce a deep and sharp gap among the stakeholders.”

A lot of questions remain, not least whether this “deep gap” between the various contending parties is bridgeable in the eight months that Indonesia has remaining as chair. In the two years-plus since its takeover, the military has anathematized all opposition as “terrorism” and used the most ruthless methods to eliminate it. Meanwhile, for the NUG and various armed resistance groups aligned with it, compromise would by definition represent an abridgment of their revolutionary goal: the permanent extrication of the military from Myanmar’s social and political life. While political negotiations might eventually become necessary, it is not clear that either side is ready to sit down and talk. Indeed, the “more than 60” engagements undertaken by Indonesian diplomats speak to the complexity and intractability of the conflict.

The other related question is whether Laos, next year’s chair of ASEAN, would carry through any process initiated by Indonesia. The country’s repressive government has made few public comments about the military coup in Myanmar, beyond calls for “political stability,” and is among the group of ASEAN governments – Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam are among the others – that are most sensitive to any “interference” by the bloc in Myanmar’s “internal affairs.”

To be fair, there is probably a hard limit to what any outside government can do to bring about a resolution, or even a moderation, of Myanmar’s conflict at the current juncture. Retno’s comments are a positive sign that within very punishing constraints, Jakarta is at least making ample use of its time in ASEAN’s cockpit.