Indonesia, Malaysia Call for Urgent ASEAN Summit on Myanmar

A demonstrator gestures near a barricade during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar March 22, 2021.(Reuters)

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin have called for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to convene an emergency summit to discuss the turmoil in Myanmar.

The Indonesian leader, known commonly as Jokowi, issued the call on Friday and was backed up by his Malaysian counterpart, who employed some of the strongest language thus far of any ASEAN member state in relation to the deteriorating situation in Myanmar.

Since the military’s seizure of power on February 1, security forces have killed at least 250 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which also confirmed that 2,665 people have been arrested, charged, or sentenced for taking part in anti-coup protests, which continue across the length and breadth of the country.

“Indonesia urges that the use of violence in Myanmar be stopped immediately so that there are no more victims,” Jokowi said in a virtual address. “The safety and welfare of the people must be the top priority. Indonesia also urges dialogue, that reconciliation is carried out immediately to restore democracy, to restore peace and to restore stability in Myanmar.”

Jokowi said he would immediately call Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the current chairman of the ASEAN, and press him to call an urgent meeting.

The Indonesian leader’s call was accompanied by a more strongly worded statement from Muhyiddin, who described the situation in Myanmar as “deplorable” and said he was “appalled by the persistent use of lethal violence against unarmed civilians.”

“We in Malaysia and the larger ASEAN community cannot afford to see our brotherly nation of Myanmar become so destabilized at the hands of a selected few, who seek to promote their own vested interests,” Muhyiddin said.

“It is clear that the current political struggle only victimizes the common people of Myanmar,” he added. “This has no place in the values of our beliefs, conscience, and culture.”

The calls – the most forthright from any ASEAN members since the crisis began – are a clear sign of the awareness, among some Southeast Asian nations at least, that the Myanmar crisis is a serious test of ASEAN’s credibility and claims to diplomatic centrality. As Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has put it, failing to take meaningful action in the case of Myanmar “would starkly underscore our lack of unity, and undermine our credibility and relevance as an organization.”

Indonesia and Malaysia were the first to call for a special ASEAN informal meeting, which was held on March 2, following a burst of shuttle diplomacy by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. Singapore has also been relatively outspoken on the crisis. Indeed, Balakrishnan is also scheduled to fly off to Brunei today for an audience with Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, followed by stops in Indonesia and Malaysia. The official announcement of the trip makes no mention of Myanmar, but one can assume that he will add his voice to calls for more a proactive ASEAN intervention in the crisis.

How much ASEAN can do to resolve the crisis remains to be seen, however. The informal meeting, held by video link, failed to reach a consensus on demands for a reversal of the coup, the immediate release of Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others detained by the military, and did little to prevent the junta from escalating its offensive against anti-coup protesters. Instead, the informal meeting merely called for a halt to violence in Myanmar and urged dialog to end the crisis.

As the same time, it is far from clear that the more punitive approach taken by many Western governments will succeed in resolving the crisis, at least on its own. However, there is a chance that ASEAN’s softer form of engagement – premised on dialog and allergic to any course of action that could further aggravate the situation inside the country – could, in tandem with pressure from other nations, provide the best chance of opening the way to political negotiations of some kind.

While accepting the reality that negotiations between the conflicting parties are not possible at this point, Kavi Chongkittavorn argued this week, “some ASEAN members have suggested informal meetings that bring together official and non-official representatives of the main stakeholders, from both inside and outside the country.” These would include representatives from the military, the ousted National League for Democracy government, ethnic minority groups, civil society, and the private sector, with the support of ASEAN, the United Nations, and key international dialogue partners.

But as the situation inside Myanmar worsens, the harrowing reality is that a negotiated end to the crisis remains a very long way off. As I have argued previously, the Myanmar crisis has placed ASEAN  “in the unenviable position of being expected to demonstrate its diplomatic mettle in a crisis that may be unsolvable.” Southeast Asian governments, like their counterparts elsewhere, may end up watching from the sidelines as history works itself out on the streets on Myanmar.

This was published in The Diplomat.