Indonesia’s Myanmar Dilemma

Indonesia’s 78th Independence Day on 17 August reflects the growing power and leadership role in the region and beyond, as it increasingly plays a central role in the region’s geopolitical maneuvering.

As the ASEAN Chair, Jakarta has to face simultaneous contentious issues that will need its leadership and right policy approach that can raise Jakarta’s regional and ultimately the global leadership credentials.

After gaining successful global traction of its G20 Chairmanship, expectations are high for Jakarta to produce credible outcome in the progress of its own regional issues of Myanmar and the South China Sea, after playing a considerable role in the Ukraine issue.

Jakarta is seen as one of the strongest regional voices and influence, and many expect it to be able to break free from previous models and approaches in providing gradual and tangible improvements to the situation in Myanmar.

Indonesia is cognizant of the complex architecture and the paradoxical dilemma at play, as it is caught between adhering to the regional consensus on the Five Point and refraining from openly acknowledging any openings for any deviations from the agreed upon ASEAN approach.

It is also caught between recognizing the NUG and meeting with the junta leaders which will invite polarizing implications for each option. Jakarta has tried to accommodate both regional and individual concerns on the stakes at play for Myanmar, understanding the unique condition and vulnerabilities for any potential fallout of greater complications for Myanmar especially the neighboring and continental states of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as the traditional countries that will be at the receiving end of potential influx of refugees such as Malaysia and Indonesia itself.

As part of the 5PC’s call to “meet with all parties concerned”, Indonesia has to take a more nuanced approach to engaging the SAC and other Myanmar stakeholders.

The Office of the Special Envoy on Myanmar has also facilitated a continuous engagement process through a quiet diplomacy approach undertaken by Jakarta as the chair. This initiative is set up by Jakarta in considering the need to have open, holistic and frank engagement mechanisms in dealing with the various critical stakeholders without limiting the potential and efficacy of new progress and future solutions, making dialogue building and conflict prevention efforts as the benchmark.

Jakarta is also relying on a multitude of different concurrent tools as part of a wider carrot and stick strategy encompassing Track I and II. While not being overly posturing to a greater stick and pressure approach, societal engagement and policymakers’ influence have also been a key target.

The recent ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) has also been made a key platform to provide a second channel of trust and confidence building through support of humanitarian assistance and the focus on aid delivery. This marks as a notable leadership credential and example of galvanising all fronts in addressing current urgency of humanitarian needs, while working on an expanded model of approach in acknowledging key differences and in bridging the policy gap that exists in ASEAN in facing the Myanmar issue.

Issues that arise from the crisis in Myanmar are also being looked into from a comprehensive perspective, from human rights violations to urgent health and security needs of the people, and to the overall need for a responsible and democratic governance system.

Jakarta has emphasised on a united approach and voice of regional stature on Myanmar, but also tried to up its diplomatic ante and leadership sway in pushing for a collective model instead of a minilateral or a spin-off approach that might jeopardise the intended Five Point agenda. Indonesia has used backdoor shuttle diplomacy to encourage stakeholders to mediate and facilitate an inclusive national dialogue in Myanmar. Jakarta’s constructive approach is to appear to be as inclusive and trustworthy as possible, in engaging with all the parties and to bridge the deep gap that exists even within the region in confronting this crisis, as well as within the internal factions in Myanmar.

Having hosted 195 ASEAN meetings so far,it is a reflection of Jakarta’s intent to be a regional leader in the various regional crises. Its quiet diplomacy and back-channel approach has not been seen by others as providing obvious results, but they have been building momentum and connections on the ground.

As it seeks to build an all-rounded approach in this issue, the need to expand on the basis of trust and confidence rather than direct confrontational approach or pandering to external powers’ model of crisis solutions to Myanmar remains critical.

Jakarta seeks to avoid megaphone diplomacy, which will weaken the dialogue process and degrade the efficacy of negotiations. Using public statements as a tool in forcing acceptance or in changing affiliations and positions is never in the cards, as Jakarta realizes the need for realistic and pragmatic mechanisms with the stakeholders in Myanmar and across the region.

This can be seen in the broad range of stakeholders that are in the picture, as part of the efforts by Jakarta in its quiet diplomacy approach. Critical voices and influential partners in this including Thailand, China and India have been actively engaged by Jakarta, flexing its full muscle of growing regional presence and leadership.

Indonesian diplomats have held more than 60 engagements and platforms with all the relevant parties, and the results might not be overtly tangible immediately. These participating parties included the junta, ethnic minority armies, and a pro-democracy shadow government.

Since facilitating national dialogue between internal stakeholders to achieve peace is a priority within Indonesia’s shuttle diplomacy, Jakarta’s success hinges upon its ability to convince all parties that dialogue is in their interests.

Facilitating national dialogue within the internal factions in Myanmar remains a priority, as reflected in the key goals of Jakarta’s shuttle diplomacy, but the eventual success is based on the ability to project a voice of trust and sincerity on Jakarta and ASEAN’s parts, and not to be seen as misusing that as creating a one sided outcome that will threaten the foundation of each of the rivalling factions, which will further derail the dialogue efforts.

Indonesia has yet to convene all stakeholders to the negotiating table, and is still in the process of building engagements and trust with bilateral parties.

In bridging differences and reducing miscommunications and wariness, Jakarta and ASEAN will need to be seen as independent of any external pressure that is deemed to have its own merits and pursuits for these external powers’ objectives.

Conflicting interests on the issue and the returns from the current status quo regime ruling in Myanmar or the potential of a new ruling party provide different returns and outcomes to ASEAN and external powers, especially the major powers of India, China, Russia and the US. All four have different involvements and concerns on the issue, and China and Russia are still reliant on the current regime through trade and arms supplies.

Myanmar remains a critical and strategic player in regional strategic calculations for Beijing, where key geostrategic returns including rare earths and geopolitical trade route remain pertinent. Myanmar provides a critical alternative supply and trade route in bypassing the contested Strait of Malacca and South China Sea, and remains a key player in its Belt and Road overture.

Jakarta is trying to navigate the issue of Myanmar, along with other issues of its interests that will have Chinese implications and influence, including on the Natuna dispute.

Beijing is concerned about the possibility of Western interference in any solutions for Myanmar, and will want to press for a regional and Jakarta led solution that will have regional influence and impact. It will not also want a too abrupt change of political situation that will create more tensions, and Jakarta also needs to balance the interests of its regional security which will see Beijing being able to tie a connecting influence to the issue of CoC and South China Sea conflict.

China will likely oppose any unilateral measure particularly from external powers including the West, to intervene in Myanmar, and will want an ASEAN solution and mechanism.

Jakarta is also feeling the weight of producing credible and tangible outcomes, knowing that it involves the greater overview of the Sino-West rivalry and the shadow of Moscow’s regional ambition as well.

Myanmar also serves as a critical barrier for India, having witnessed the growing Chinese presence in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. All potential future implications on Myanmar will have direct bearing on India.

China and Russia will be open to provide the needed support to Jakarta in facilitating a regional and national dialogue and discourse, but will be restricted by their superseding geopolitical interests and needs in Myanmar, fearing which any chain reactions resulting from miscalculations in ASEAN approach will backfire on their pursuits for Myanmar.

Jakarta now shoulders the ultimate role of salvaging ASEAN’s dented credibility and relevance as a result of its slow and often toothless response to the Myanmar crisis. The future trajectory of the great power competition in the region also hinges on the policy model and approaches of Indonesia, in helming regional discourse and stance.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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