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Indonesia ramps up diplomacy to solve Myanmar crisis

Jokowi aims to thwart criticism at home by assuming larger ASEAN role

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, through his foreign minister, stresses noninterference, but also democracy, human rights and the rule of law. (Nikkei montage/Reuters/Shinya Sawai)

BANGKOK -- Myanmar's military attended an international conference for the first time since the February coup d'etat.

Military-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin attended an online ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on March 2. Some participants urged Myanmar to exercise restraint in cracking down on anti-coup protestors and immediately release Aung San Suu Kyi, de facto leader of the country until the coup.

During the conference, Wunna Maung Lwin reportedly expressed his irritation and said he would not attend another such meeting.

"We expressed our concern on the situation in Myanmar ... and ASEAN's readiness to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner," said host country Brunei in a statement.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called for adherence to noninterference in internal affairs but stressed the importance of respecting democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The ASEAN charter, adopted by the 10 member states in 2008, stipulates that nations should respect the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of others as well as adhere to "the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government."

The noninterference policy occasionally conflicts with the other principles, because when constitutional governance is ignored, noninterference prevents corrective action from member states.

ASEAN has historically leaned toward noninterference. Founded by five countries in 1967, the bloc took more than 30 years to become the current union of 10 countries, with widely different political systems, levels of economic development, ethnic groups and religions.

The rule of noninterference is wise if the group is to move forward by finding common ground rather than squabble over differences.

When regional customs crystallized into a formal ASEAN charter, there were moves to review the noninterference policy. A group of elder statesmen from member states even advocated for the punishment of those who violated the charter.

The charter, however, has retained the noninterference policy because of late ASEAN entrants such as Vietnam and Laos, who have had issues with human rights and democracy, in addition to Myanmar under military rule.

The coup in Myanmar -- which has rolled back a decade of progress toward democracy -- has exposed a weakness in ASEAN, which some mockingly refer to as NATO, short for no action, talk only.

ASEAN should be praised for "managing to hold a meeting that Myanmar joined," a diplomat said. "It's unrealistic for ASEAN as a whole to continually convene meetings on Myanmar. A focal point will be how individual countries act in cooperation with the United Nations and countries outside the region."

Indonesia looks to play a key role. President Joko Widodo proposed the ASEAN ministerial conference during his meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Feb. 5 following the coup.

Instructed by Joko, Retno flew to Brunei, Singapore and Thailand to arrange the conference. She canceled a visit to the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw, as a media report of her trip beforehand provoked a strong backlash from anti-coup protestors thinking that the trip was de facto approval to new elections demanded by the military.

On Feb. 24, however, Retno met Wunna Maung Lwin for 20 minutes at Thailand's Don Mueang International Airport. He agreed to attend the online ministerial meeting.

With a population of 260 million, Indonesia considers itself a de facto ASEAN leader and has played coordinating roles to address regional problems.

Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997 just after the U.S. imposed economic sanctions. Its membership was due in large part to the support of then Indonesian President Suharto, who stressed that Myanmar should not be isolated. When a Thailand-Cambodia border dispute erupted in 2011, Indonesia mediated the ceasefire.

In 2017, Retno visited Bangladesh, where Rohingya Muslim refugees had fled from Myanmar.

Indonesia's interventions have been partly attributable to itself. In 1996, before Myanmar's ASEAN entry, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to East Timorese politician Jose Ramos-Horta and Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, a Roman Catholic bishop, for their work towards independence for East Timor. Ramos-Horta subsequently served as the president and prime minister of East Timor.

Suharto feared that if the U.S. and Europe were allowed to intervene in Myanmar, they would turn their criticism toward Indonesia for repression in East Timor.

Indonesia was the ASEAN chair during the Thailand-Cambodia border conflict. Being an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, it is now closely watching the Rohingya situation.

But Retno's frequent media updates to domestic news outlets following the Myanmar coup appear to be staged. Joko "should be motivated enough to get actively involved in the Myanmar problem in a bid to eliminate an image that his administration is growing authoritarian," said Ken Miichi, professor at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies of Waseda University.

His administration has taken a hardline against opposition forces such as radical Muslims. The coup in Myanmar is a good opportunity for the president to fend off criticism that Indonesia is "backing down from democracy ... and returning to the Suharto era," according to Miichi.

But public reaction to the administration's stance is a different matter.

"For the Indonesian public, there is very little sympathy with Suu Kyi... Many in Indonesia believe that in order to stay in power, Suu Kyi allowed the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] to persecute the Rohingya," said Rizal Sukma, senior research fellow of the Indonesian Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Joko has been forced into a corner in coping with the pandemic, said Bachitar Alam, representative of Indonesian think tank Asiaconsult Associates, adding that the biggest task for the president is to halt the spread of Covid-19 infections and revive the economy. Myanmar is not a high-priority issue for Joko, Alam said.

While Joko may want to use the Myanmar crisis to score political points, one misstep and he could face a major backlash.

The U.S., Europe, and Japan are trying to formulate strategies to protect their economic interests in Myanmar while keeping China at bay. Indonesian is in the same situation.

Joko, a furniture maker-turned politician, became president after serving in local governments. He once admitted that he is not good at diplomacy -- since assuming office in 2014, he has absented himself from the U.N. General Assembly held every September. He delivered his first speech to the body last year through a prerecorded video streamed online.

But the crisis in Myanmar is an ASEAN crisis. As a major power in the region, Joko needs to step up and assume the main role to promote cooperation and achieve a diplomatic breakthrough.

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