Indonesia’s chairmanship of Asean draws to a close with the conclusion of the 43rd Asean Summit last week. The year started with high hopes for resolving the Myanmar crisis, with Indonesia as chair given its public call for the “return of democracy” and its leadership back in 2021 that led to the adoption of the Five-Point Consensus (5PC).
By and large, there is no significant progress on the ground today. The military junta controls urban centres despite sporadic attacks by resistance forces. Ethnic Armed Organisations still hold or have influence in large swathes of the countryside. Peoples’ Defence Forces carry out daily attacks on Myanmar military columns and outposts, with battle casualties accumulating. And the misery of displaced persons (including the Rohingya people) across the country continues unabated.
Nonetheless, Asean leaders issued a stronger statement at the summit, facilitated by a less contentious process this time.
They called on the Myanmar armed forces in particular to de-escalate and cease attacks against civilians. The leaders also agreed to create an informal consultation mechanism among the previous, current, and next chairs (known as the “troika”).
They further decided that the Philippines will be the Asean chair in 2026 instead of Myanmar while keeping the “dis-invitation” of Myanmar from future summits and foreign ministers meetings. Perhaps most importantly, Asean leaders called for a ‘sustainable’ approach to implementing the 5PC and engaging all Myanmar stakeholders in the process.
Indonesia’s leadership on Myanmar this year must not be understated. Not only did it sustain Asean’s position regarding “non-political representatives” to the summit and foreign ministers’ meeting, Jakarta also created a separate Office of the Special Envoy to ensure its regular and expansive engagement with more stakeholders could continue without straining the foreign minister herself.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi also attempted to convene all the different Special Envoys on Myanmar, including from China and the UN, in an effort to promote better coordination in support of the 5PC.
Crucially, Indonesia spoke to various ethnic group leaders and stakeholders through “quiet diplomacy” — informal and discreet conversations led by the head of the Office of the Special Envoy Ngurah Swajaya.
This set an important precedent that the ethnic groups are key stakeholders in any process moving forward, and that the Special Envoy is not bound to meet only parties approved by the State Administration Council (SAC).
By bringing Myanmar stakeholders to Indonesia for these conversations, Jakarta also created a safe space outside Myanmar where these stakeholders could gather and talk to one another. And by patiently listening to the views of a diversity of Myanmar stakeholders, it also increased their confidence that Asean could play a role in transforming the crisis.
But “quiet diplomacy” also has its shortcomings. Myanmar stakeholders and the wider international policy community were left unclear about the nature and content of the engagements. Nor was it clear what the objectives and outcomes of the engagements were, and what progress was being made. Critics could argue that this highly centralised, non-transparent approach is ultimately ineffective when others could try to fill the vacuum by pushing their own respective mechanisms such as non-Asean track 1.5 dialogues.
More broadly, Asean also still lacks an implementation roadmap for the 5PC. Although the summit calls for such a sustainable plan, Indonesia did not deliver one. The lack of institutional clarity for the Office of the Special Envoy — whether it can be ‘passed on’ to the next chair, for example — exacerbated this problem. As the multi-faceted Myanmar crisis will not be resolved in the near future, an institutionalised and sustained Asean mechanism backed by a multi-chair organisation is imperative.
As Laos takes over as chair of Asean going into 2024, how might Asean rework its Myanmar approach? First, institutions. An Office of the Asean Special Envoy could be institutionalised, with a dedicated pooled fund to support a full-time staff transcending the rotating term of the chair.
Such an office could include other Asean member states working as regional officers rather than representing their respective capitals. The office headed by the special envoy could also be backed by his or her deputies in charge of specific tasks, such as coordinating humanitarian assistance, monitoring ceasefires, and engaging stakeholders to prepare the ground for inclusive dialogue.
Second, vision. Asean needs to develop a medium-term three- to five-year roadmap to implement the 5PC with measurable indicators. This would set out the minimum conditions for “reintegrating” Myanmar back into Asean — at which point the role of the special envoy would be complete.
This Asean roadmap would be complement Myanmar’s own roadmap to peace. In so doing, it would keep adherence to the spirit of non-interference. An Asean roadmap could also alleviate the pressure and temper expectations on any single Asean chair to “succeed” within its one-year term. Each chair would instead be building progress and supporting the work of the Asean Special Envoy.
Finally, coordination. The first level is at the “Asean-minus” level. Stronger ties, common intent, and openness between Indonesia and Thailand are instrumental to push the needle on the Myanmar crisis.
Arguably, while Indonesia has gained the trust of many Myanmar stakeholders due to its engagement efforts, Thailand has leverage as a frontline state and links with the SAC. Asean will only stand a chance of dealing with the crisis if these two members work together. The second level is “Asean-plus”. The support of external actors is essential, bringing together international and regional special envoys (Asean and China, India, Japan, EU, UN, and Thailand), possibly through a forum for joint coordination.
Institutions, vision, and coordination are three key pillars for Asean to shift the needle on the Myanmar crisis. The path to overturning the tired accusations of Asean’s lack of unity and credibility will be long and arduous. But for the people of Myanmar, far more is at stake.