Can Indonesia Rally an ASEAN Response to the Myanmar Coup?

24 February 2021 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Programme

It is unlikely that ASEAN will agree to a co-ordinated response to the military coup in Myanmar, leaving it to countries from outside the region to impose stronger measures. Convincing the military to schedule a new election with ASEAN oversight, while not ideal, may be the best-case scenario for ASEAN.

 

Background

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was set to fly to Myanmar on Thursday in what would have been the first visit by a foreign official since the coup d’état which took place on 1 February. The visit was revealed in a leaked government document from the Ministry of Transport and authenticated by Myanmar officials, according to Reuters. During the coup in Myanmar, military leaders sized power and detained political leaders of the ruling party, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now faced with arbitrary charges for her arrest. In response to the coup and the imposed year-long state of emergency, large-scale protests have erupted across the country and the US and European Union have imposed sanctions on the military junta.

Comment

It is unclear how Ms Marsudi would have been received in her visit, which was set to only be several hours long. The intent of her visit was not made publicly known but it appeared that she was to meet with officials from the military junta given the condemnation from local activist groups of the visit. Due to her recent activity and comments, it is likely that the goal of the visit was to encourage the resumption of democratic processes.

Prior to her now cancelled Myanmar visit, Marsudi began her tour through South-East Asia to rally support for a cohesive and constructive response to the coup and to hold a special summit among members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). So far, the response from ASEAN members to the coup has been mixed: Some countries have refused to make a comment while others made vague statements expressing concern about the situation without directly implicating the military. Marsudi has avoided commenting on the military directly, and instead has focussed on the transition back to democracy, writing to Reuters: ‘The inclusive democratic transition should be pursued according to the wishes of the Myanmar people. Any way forward is the means to this end’.

Realistically, there is little that Indonesia can do to help facilitate that process outside of the military’s promise to hold new elections, which will take place after an indeterminate period of time following the conclusion of the state of emergency in 2022. Reports that Indonesia had drawn up plans to oversee the new elections held by the military drew anger from local groups who accused Indonesia of ignoring will of the Myanmar people expressed in the previous election. Indonesia has since refuted those reports, insisting that: ‘That is not Indonesia’s position at all. […] What we want to underline is how we seek a solution in Myanmar through an inclusive democratic political process that involves all parties’.

Unfortunately, however, Indonesia has few other options. Constructive dialogue will be the preferred approach of ASEAN, but the likelihood of any tangible outcome is low. ASEAN is in a strong position to impose sanctions against the military, given the close economic links between Myanmar and the rest of South-East Asia, especially Thailand. It is, however, highly unlikely that members will agree to such an approach, given the strong mandate of non-interference within the grouping.

While it looks like ASEAN is impeding Indonesia’s efforts to address the situation in Myanmar, Jakarta will not act of its own accord outside of the grouping. Instead, the visit by Marsudi could have set the tone for future dialogue between the Myanmar military and ASEAN. As such, it will be some time before any action is taken, leaving it up to countries from outside the region to impose stronger measures. An ideal outcome would be for ASEAN to convince the military to set a date for new elections – sooner rather than later – while guaranteeing the fair participation of all parties and which could be overseen by other ASEAN members. While that may not be the outcome hoped for by the Myanmar protesters, it will at least be a step forward back to democracy while keeping the credibility of ASEAN intact.

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