By this weekend, the world will find out whether the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) -- under Indonesian chairmanship -- will be able to overcome challenges in Myanmar's peace process and bridge the divisions among various stakeholders.
Asean leaders have scheduled a 90-minute retreat at the end of the 42nd summit on May 11 in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia, to review the progress, or the lack of it, on the current situation of the beleaguered member. By the end of their meeting, Asean will come up with appropriate measures to propel the bloc's peace mission in Myanmar.
After the massacre of more than 170 people at Pazi Gyi village in the Sagaing region on April 11, increased international pressure has been piled on Asean to take serious punitive measures against Myanmar. As such, the Asean chair has a heavy burden to demonstrate its diplomatic prowess manifested last year at the global level as G20 chair. Most importantly, Jakarta has to show its middle-power clout to lead and maintain the bloc's even playing field for key regional challenges, especially the Myanmar crisis.
Last week, when the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah detailed the Asean chair's achievement during the first quarter on political/security, economic and socialist/cultural pillars; it was noteworthy that he did not mention Myanmar at all. Apparently, as the world's third-largest democracy, the Asean chair has a broader agenda to pursue, especially those related to geopolitical issues, ie, food, energy security and human rights, among others.
From the beginning, Jakarta has made clear it would not be held hostage by the Myanmar situation. Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi, once the strongest critic of Asean's response to the crisis, has few words these days on the chair's efforts in pushing for the five-point consensus (5PC). While she has set up and headed the Office of the Asean Special Envoy, she has yet to officially name the special envoy. Without naming the envoy, her staffers are representing Ms Retno, not the Asean chair per se.
It needs to be mentioned that in the past few months, Indonesia -- along with other Asean members -- have met with representatives of the National Unity Government (NUG) and other stakeholders to encourage inclusive dialogue on the Myanmar issue.
In tandem, Myanmar's closest neighbour, Thailand, which shares a non-demarcated 2,401-kilometre border, also initiated the track 1.5 roundtable dialogue on Myanmar in March with representatives, both officials and non-officials from countries bordering Myanmar, namely India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand. Japan, Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia also sent their representatives to the meeting.
To keep the momentum going for the track 1.5 dialogue, India followed up by hosting the second 1.5 dialogue at the end of last month. The third one is being planned for June, and it will be held in Laos.
At the Asean summit, which runs from today to Thursday, the implementation of the 5PC and the outcomes of the two-track 1.5 dialogues will be discussed and, if possible, synergised to identify common grounds. At the moment, trust-building among conceding parties is imperative. Addressing their concerns and interests is necessary.
Since the coup in February 2021, three key issues have dominated the discussion with Asean and with the military regime in Nay Pyi Taw. Three issues are the de-escalation of conflict, the national reconciliation process and the strengthening of democratic transition and delivery of humanitarian assistance. In past meetings, the military regime insisted that any humanitarian assistance must only go through designated channels, mainly airports or sea ports. At the moment, Asean has already delivered rescue items and other aid to Myanmar via the Myanmar Red Cross' local volunteers.
Besides the 5PC and input from the two rounds of track 1.5 dialogue, the Asean meeting will also give priority to regional security -- serious transnational crimes, particularly human trafficking, narcotics and illicit arms sales. A few weeks before the Asean summit this week, there was a flurry of diplomatic activities among countries bordering Myanmar to tackle these issues. The Asean chair also eyes human trafficking as a priority for the summit. Thailand will also raise the haze problem affecting its northern region and neighbouring countries.
Also on the priority list are critical issues, including the eradication of human trafficking, the strengthening of the institutionalisation of the Human Rights Dialogue in Asean, the drafting of the roadmap for Timor Leste's membership and the signing the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Protocol, also known as the Bangkok Treaty, one of the five no-nuke treaties in the world, and the negotiation of the Code of Conduct (COC) text, which is intended to reduce the risk of conflict in the South China Sea, a disputed waterway.
At the outset, Ms Retno said that Indonesia wants to see the acceleration of talks to finalise a COC that is "substantive, effective and actionable". She even called for Asean and China to expedite COC negotiations by holding more meetings and completing the second reading of the draft.
In fact, both sides have been doing that all along since the conclusion of the first reading back in 2019 during the Thai chairmanship. The whole process was then interrupted and delayed by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Due to the confidential nature of the subject, all concerned parties preferred to hold face-to-face negotiations, and these resumed last year. Essentially, they have to decide whether the COC will be binding or not.
Chances are high that it will be binding, but many contentious points have yet to be agreed upon. Given the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, it remains to be seen how Asean and China can make further COC progress.
Now, it is hoped that negotiations can advance and the nature of the COC can be decided before Jakarta passes the baton to Laos in September.
Under the Indonesian leadership, there will be progress on the accession of China to the SEANWFZ, which is expected to be signed at the 43rd Asean summit in September. Despite the US-China rivalry, Asean continues to engage both powers unwaveringly. Asean is trying to curry favour with China to sign the no-nuke treaty SEANWFZ.
For nearly three decades, China has wanted to be the first nuclear power to sign the SEANWFZ, but Asean members have been reluctant to have China accede alone. They would like to have all five nuclear powers -- the US, UK, France, China and Russia -- sign the treaty simultaneously. So far, that aim remains elusive. In 2010, during the Asean annual meeting in Hanoi, Thailand raised the possibility of having the two South Asian nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, ink the SEANWFZ treaty.
Asean's change of heart on the no-nuke treaty follows new geopolitical developments, particularly the announcement of Aukus, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the US and the UK last September.
Another case study was the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which was aimed at responding to the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy.
This year, Indonesia will continue to mainstream the AOIP to ensure that it maintains its centrality in the emerging security architecture amid the myriad of Indo-Pacific frameworks proposed by the bloc's dialogue partners. Asean will continue to strengthen concrete AOIP cooperation based on the principles of inclusiveness, economic cooperation and economic development.
As reiterated always by the current chair, Asean matters are at the epicentre of regional growth. In addition, it also serves as the barometer of Indonesia's leadership in Asean, especially those pertaining to the president and foreign minister and its legacy for the days to come.