Regional Splits on Myanmar Are Becoming More Apparent

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Regional Splits on Myanmar Are Becoming More Apparent

Three parallel regional processes are trying to deal with the Myanmar crisis. They risk undermining each other. 

Regional Splits on Myanmar Are Becoming More Apparent

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi , left, gestures and Indonesia President Joko Widodo, right, listen during a press conference the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara province, Indonesia, May 11, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim, pool

From May 9 to 11, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened in the stunning fishing town of Labuan Bajo in the eastern Indonesian region of Nusa Tenggara for its 42nd summit. It was the 10-member bloc’s third summit since the February 2021 coup d’etat in Myanmar, which pushed the country into a prolonged state of violent conflict and economic decay.

It was also the third summit since ASEAN adopted the “Five-Point Consensus” and created a special envoy mechanism to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. In keeping with the bloc’s current policy, Myanmar’s seat at the 42nd summit remained vacant, with the Burmese junta disinvited to the high-level event.

Despite the policy of snubbing the junta, ASEAN has failed to implement the Five-Point Consensus. One could even argue it has allowed the consensus to fail. Myanmar’s obstinate generals continue to take the bloc for a ride by ignoring the consensus’ stipulations and setting their own terms, definitions, and timelines for its implementation. This obduracy hasn’t noticeably damaged the junta’s already-tarnished image, but it has certainly soured ASEAN’s reputation as a regional organization.

Meanwhile, the current ASEAN chair, Indonesia, has initiated a backdoor process that might potentially break the political and diplomatic ennui over the crisis. The exact contours of this shadow mechanism remain fuzzy, but in the current scheme of things, it certainly indicates forward movement of the glacier.

At the same time, the recent Track 1.5 meetings hosted by Thailand and India in March and April, respectively, reveal that parallel processes of subregional conflict mediation are at play.

Are these three processes distinct? Are they at loggerheads with each other, or are they complementary? Can they find a resolution to the Myanmar imbroglio?

The ASEAN Way: A Broken Record?

In the latest ASEAN summit’s 25-page “Chairman’s Statement,” the Myanmar crisis triggered by the coup and the ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus were mentioned in the very last point, below the Russia-Ukraine war. Beyond noting the recent completion of the Joint Needs Assessment (JNA) and “partial delivery” of humanitarian aid in Myanmar by the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Center), the bloc said nothing new on the crisis. It continues to hold the Five-Point Consensus as its “main reference point” on the issue, despite negligible progress on its implementation.

Save for the recent attack on an AHA aid convoy in eastern Shan State by an unidentified “militia,” ASEAN did not condemn nor mention any other violent incident in Myanmar in the final statement. In fact, the bloc condemned the convoy attack and called for the perpetrators to be held accountable in a separate statement on the very first day of the summit.

In the final statement, there was no mention of the devastating aerial bombing of a large civilian gathering in Sagaing Region’s Pazi Gyi village on April 11, which killed more than 175 people. Indonesia, as the bloc’s chair, had “strongly condemn[ed]” the attack in a statement released on behalf of the entire organization on April 13. However, ASEAN stuck to neutrally urging for “immediate cessation of all forms of violence” in the post-summit statement.

Notably, the bloc also did not highlight the junta’s failure in making any progress on the Five-Point Consensus, which it did in last year’s final statement. However, during the meeting, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said that “there has not been significant progress” on the consensus’ implementation.

ASEAN appears to be locked in an endless and all but futile cycle of taking cognizance and issuing condemnation. In fact, its repetitive refrains on Myanmar have started to sound trite and unimaginative. This vagueness comes from two places – structural constraints on making hard interventions in Myanmar, and serious internal disagreements on how to deal with the junta.

By now, it is an open secret that ASEAN is divided over the latter. According to CNA correspondent, Leong Wai Kit, a “leaked memo” from the latest summit revealed that while some member states want ASEAN to re-include the junta at the highest levels, others, like Indonesia and Singapore, favor the current boycott policy.

This is hardly a surprise given that the bloc continues to employ a hybrid – some would say, indecisive – strategy of including and boycotting the junta. While the junta remains uninvited to the annual summits, its senior officials have participated in dozens of ASEAN meetings since the coup, including the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meetings (ADMM) in 2021 and 2022 and a meeting-cum-exercise of the ADMM-Plus in February. The junta was, however, excluded from the defense ministers’ annual retreat in November 2022.

Ultimately, ASEAN remains awkwardly stuck between censuring and entertaining the coup regime. This has generated widespread frustration and confusion in external quarters, including Myanmar’s revolutionary forces, who are aghast at ASEAN’s failure to hold the junta accountable for its brutality and foot-dragging.

The organizational incertitude also risks inducing diplomatic fatigue among the member states on the Myanmar issue. Many of them might want to eventually deprioritize Myanmar and focus on other issues, such as the Indo-Pacific. As a result, Myanmar’s issue with ASEAN might slip into a state of comatose.

The Indonesian Way: A Breakthrough?

Earlier this month, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told Reuters that Jakarta had been “quietly engaging key stakeholders in Myanmar’s conflict, as well as neighbors India, Thailand and China in an effort to kick-start a peace process.” She revealed that Indonesian diplomats have had more than 60 “engagements” with parties involved in the Myanmar crisis, including the military junta, ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and the civilian-led National Unity Government (NUG). Retno characterized Jakarta’s conflict mediation efforts as “non-megaphone diplomacy” designed to “build trust with all stakeholders.”

This came four months after Jakarta revealed that it would use its ASEAN chairmanship to set up a “special envoy’s office” in order to manage the bloc’s conflict diplomacy on the Myanmar crisis. The office was later set up with Retno as its head. Senior diplomats are playing a supporting role by conducting closed-door meetings with various stakeholders on her behalf, while a small coterie of administrative and logistical staff has been handling day-to-day operations.

It remains to be seen whether the office will be carried forward into next year, when Laos takes over from Indonesia as the ASEAN chair. Jakarta might want to remain active in the mediational efforts beyond its chairmanship. However, it has not yet fully institutionalized the office or resourced it to a level where it can become a concrete, ASEAN-level unit. This is a major concern, as the bloc’s rotating chairmanship has come in the way of ensuring continuity and consistency of intent and action on Myanmar.

Since the 2021 coup and the signing of the Five-Point Consensus two months later, this is the first time an ASEAN chair has done something beyond what is understood to be its standard remit on the Myanmar issue. In fact, Indonesia has demonstrated that with political willingness and diplomatic tenacity, progress is possible. Crisis diplomacy is delicate business, and Jakarta’s approach reaffirms the constructive possibility of going behind closed doors to build confidence and create trust where there is none.

Most importantly, unlike India and Thailand – who are known for their own “silent diplomacy” on Myanmar – Indonesia has engaged all sides, and not just the junta, in its shadow diplomacy. This may look like a radical move given the region’s conservative legacy, but is simply in line with the Five-Point Consensus.

Despite this, the closed format has its own downsides. Outside observers do not get to assess the outcomes of the talks. This means there is little to no public accountability. It becomes impossible to assess whether such a process is actually working, or if its outcomes align with the broader objectives enshrined in the Five-Point Consensus. So the risks of expecting too much from “the Indonesian way” are real. Jakarta may be trying its best to find a meaningful, people-centric solution to the crisis, but it remains hostage to more than one restraining factor.

One, Indonesia faces a serious normative dilemma over ASEAN’s non-interference principle, on which the jury is still very much out. On the one hand, Jakarta wants to be principled and seek accountability from a member that has grossly violated the ASEAN Charter. On the other, there is also a limit to what Indonesia can do to seek such accountability. Any wrong move might be seen as conferring legitimacy to one side in the conflict, which could instantly alienate the other sides. Further, fellow ASEAN countries could see Indonesia’s Myanmar diplomacy as idealistic unilateralism, which could then widen existing fissures within the bloc and eventually, dilute its centrality. This is a scenario that Jakarta would want to avoid at all cost.

Indonesia also remains apprehensive of the fact that the Myanmar imbroglio could hijack the entirety of the ASEAN agenda under its chairmanship. Jokowi, during the latest summit, said that the “issue of Myanmar must not hinder the acceleration of ASEAN community building because community building is awaited by the people of ASEAN.” Earlier, Teuku Faizasyah, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s director general of information and public diplomacy, in an op-ed for The Jakarta Post, argued against judging Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship “solely by the ongoing stalemate in Myanmar.”

Finally, Indonesia lacks the capacity to sustain a comprehensive mediational initiative that is backed by sufficient political willingness and resources. There is no doubt that the Foreign Ministry is keen on moving ahead. But, beyond the Rohingya crisis, the general Indonesian public does not yet see the Myanmar situation as a strategic impediment. This might disincentivize the Jokowi government from continuing to invest diplomatic capital in the crisis. Throw in the fact that Jokowi himself is term limited and will be replaced by a new president in 2024, and the longevity of the current effort is questionable.

A Third Pole?

Besides the collective ASEAN track and the distinctive “Indonesian way,” there is a third regional approach that has emerged regarding the Myanmar crisis. This Track 1.5 approach is primarily led by Thailand and India, Myanmar’ two influential neighbors to the east and west, respectively.

The latest meeting of this “third pole” took place on April 25 in New Delhi as a follow up to the first one hosted by the Thai government in Bangkok on March 13. The Indian government, along with the Indian Council on World Affairs (ICWA), hosted it. Government and think tank representatives from Thailand, Bangladesh, Laos, China, Vietnam, and the former and current ASEAN chairs, Cambodia and Indonesia, joined the Track 1.5. The hosts also invited “mid-level” junta representatives from Myanmar, but left the NUG out.

As per media reports, the participants discussed “reduction of violence, countering transnational crimes, national reconciliation, delivery of humanitarian aid” as well as “creating space for dialogue.” They also agreed to support “Myanmar’s capacity to fight transnational crimes,” indicating a desire to work with the junta on specific issues. According to a Nikkei Asia report, India “agreed with Myanmar to send a delegation to Naypyidaw to help push for a ‘full resumption of dialogue’ between the regional governments.”

It is clear that this third track is designed to serve the interests of Myanmar’s immediate neighbors in South Asia and the Mekong region, who feel flustered by ASEAN’s vague approach. The overall tone and tenor of the discussions suggest that the hosts, instead of finding a solution that respects the wishes of the Myanmar people, only seek to normalize relations between the coup regime and regional governments, including with themselves.

Most of the states joining this effort see the Myanmar situation from a pragmatist-realist perspective, and have resumed normal diplomatic engagement with the junta over the last one year. They also have little track record in seeking accountability from autocratic military regimes. This creates a very narrow and instrumentalist pathway to conflict resolution that privileges geopolitics over justice and accountability. The meeting’s secretive nature also allows its participants to dodge public accountability, not unlike Jakarta’s own shadow diplomacy.

These are serious concerns that Indonesia, or any ASEAN chair, should take note of. Four months before New Delhi hosted the Track 1.5, Retno told The Hindu that India (and all ASEAN partners) should follow the Five-Point Consensus, instead of going their own way on Myanmar. But, contrary to claims made by its hosts, this process appears to be only negating, not complementing, the ASEAN consensus, which stipulates engagement with all stakeholders, and not just the junta. By drawing in only a select few ASEAN member states, further, the Track 1.5 risks widening the cracks within ASEAN.

Overall, there seems to be a clash of views and methods between Myanmar’s immediate neighbors, who seek short-term solutions as countries directly impacted by the conflict’s cross-border spillover, and the ASEAN perspective, which is more normative, although internally conflicted. Yet, even “distant” countries that have felt the ripple effects of the Myanmar situation – such as Indonesia, which has seen an expansion of Myanmar-linked transnational criminal networks – may gravitate toward short-term fixes instead of a comprehensive resolution. Hence, ASEAN needs to reconcile with its own abstractions and confusions before attributing its failures to external entities.

The ASEAN Five-Point Consensus approach, the Track 1.5 process, and Indonesia’s “silent diplomacy” will have critical implications on each other and ultimately, on the dire situation in Myanmar. They may complement each other if all three operate in tandem. But, if the processes unfold in silos, they may end up scuttling each other and doing more harm than good.