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Analysts: As 2023 ASEAN chair, Indonesia must dial up pressure on Myanmar junta

Much is expected from next year’s ASEAN chair Indonesia, especially in resolving the post-coup crisis in Myanmar, but analysts say that little will change unless Jakarta spearheads a hardline stance against the Burmese junta.

Navigating geopolitical rivalries between superpowers will pose another challenge, say analysts. Some predict that Indonesia will likely focus its 2023 chairmanship on regional connectivity, economic recovery, and preventing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from being used as a pawn in the U.S.-China tug-of-war.

Last month, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said that the situation in Myanmar should not define the regional bloc. But how ASEAN deals with the issue will show whether it is an effective regional institution and problem solver, said Shofwan Al Banna Choiruzzad, an international relations lecturer at the University of Indonesia.

“ASEAN is still clinging to the five-point consensus. It needs to be more aggressive in pushing for conflict resolution, such as temporarily freezing Myanmar’s membership if the violence continues,” he told BenarNews.

The Myanmar junta “agreed to” a five-point consensus with ASEAN in April 2021, more than two months after the Burmese generals toppled an elected government. The aim was to restore peace and democracy to Myanmar.

However that country has since descended into a bloody civil conflict, with many analysts saying the violence only increased in the second half of 2022. Nearly 2,700 people have been killed and close to 17,000 have been arrested in Myanmar, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader, has reneged on almost every point of the consensus. Still, Myanmar remains a member of ASEAN and all the bloc has done is to exclude any representative from the Myanmar junta from its official meetings.

Indonesia, as the ASEAN chair, needs to be more assertive in dealing with the junta after nearly two years of zero progress, said Yose Rizal Damuri, executive director at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“All this time ASEAN has been restricted to the non-interference principle, therefore ASEAN must have a clearer proposal, whether that means putting more pressure on Myanmar … or, if necessary, expel Myanmar from ASEAN,” he told BenarNews.

He was referring to one of the bloc’s core operating principles: that member-states do not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs.

Analysts may be indulging in some wishful thinking when talking about ASEAN expelling Myanmar.

The 10-member bloc also famously operates by consensus. And critics have said that close ties between some of ASEAN’s more authoritarian member-states and Myanmar’s military have prevented stronger action.

Just this month, the Thai government hosted a meeting on the Myanmar crisis that included the Burmese junta’s foreign minister. Analysts saw this as a deliberate attempt to deepen a schism within ASEAN between its more authoritarian governments and its more democratic ones.

Those members opposed to the Burmese junta – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore – were notably absent from the Bangkok meeting.

As Southeast Asia’s largest nation and the world’s third-largest democracy, Indonesia can be a strong leader of ASEAN, according to Abdul Ghafur Hamid, a law professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia.

President Jokowi is taking the helm of the 10-member bloc after having served this past year as president of the Group of Twenty, which was divided over Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine.

“[I]ndonesia was once under military rule and successfully transitioned to a democratic state,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Jakarta Post on Thursday.

“Indonesia’s vast experience with this strategic transition will definitely help President Jokowi and the new Indonesian special envoy for Myanmar to be able to overcome the challenges ahead.”

Indonesia’s chairmanship could lead to Myanmar being persuaded to hold an election next year, like the junta promised, said Andi Widjajanto, the governor of the National Resilience Institute, a government agency.

In September, Min Aung Hlaing had indicated in an interview to Russian news agency RIA that the proposed August 2023 election may be delayed, Thai news site The Irrawaddy reported.

Of course, there is the question of the legitimacy of junta-held elections. Many believe they will be a sham, much like the reason given for justifying the coup – that the November 2020 polls were rigged.

Besides, “how many times do they have to hold elections to become a mature democracy?” Andi told BenarNews.

Jokowi and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi are well aware of the challenges that Indonesia faces as ASEAN chair.

“We will hold the chairmanship in the midst of a global situation that is not getting any better. And at home, the situation in Myanmar has posed its own challenge for ASEAN,” Retno told reporters last month.

“For this reason, Indonesia wants to make ASEAN remain important and relevant – ASEAN matters,” Retno said.

Meanwhile, another “formidable challenge” to Indonesia’s chairmanship of ASEAN is that Southeast Asia has become a theater for the rivalry between the United States and China, said analyst Shofwan of the University of Indonesia.

“Managing and maintaining ASEAN centrality in the region will be critical to managing these tensions,” he said.

The tensions go beyond a competition between the superpowers for influence in Southeast Asia.

Five ASEAN countries – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with China’s sweeping claims. While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

ASEAN and China have been negotiating a code for years but without success.

Indonesia’s chairmanship may try to focus on regional connectivity to avoid falling into the pit of great-power competition, Teesta Prakash and Gatra Priyandita, analysts at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), wrote on the think-tank’s website last week.

“Indonesia is aware that a unified ASEAN bloc, and indeed a cohesive Southeast Asia, would be the best deterrent against an assertive rising China, and that will be its single most important challenge – to bring cohesion to the region, economically as well as strategically,” they wrote.

“Its success will be measured by how it bridges the strategic and economic dissonance in 2023.”

They also wrote that Timor-Leste’s imminent inclusion as ASEAN’s eleventh member is “driven by the strategic vision that no country in Southeast Asia should fall under any one power’s influence.”

The tiny nation of 1.3 million people, formerly known as East Timor, voted to break away from Indonesian rule in 1999, 24 years after the Indonesian forces invaded and occupied the former Portuguese colony.

Timor Leste is expected to become ASEAN’s 11th member next year at a yet-unspecified date. Some analysts say that Timor-Leste’s alleged closeness to China is a cause of concern for Western allies in the Indo-Pacific, such as Australia.

“Given the potential for Timor-Leste to fall under China’s economic influence, its inclusion in ASEAN could ensure that it diversifies its economy and integrates with the region, lessening its dependence on China,” the ASPI article said.

Jokowi and his foreign minister have emphasized that ASEAN cannot be a pawn in what minister Retno, during a speech before the U.N. General Assembly in September, called a “new Cold War.”

Speaking after being handed the ceremonial ASEAN chairmanship gavel by Cambodia last month, Jokowi said: “ASEAN must become a peaceful region and anchor for global stability, consistently uphold international law and not be a proxy (for) any powers.”

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