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ASEAN and Myanmar: the Next Moves

Last week, the new Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair, Indonesia, convened the first two important meetings – the ASEAN Coordinating Council and ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat – to discuss and follow up on ongoing and emerging issues that have to do with the relevancy of ASEAN and its centrality.

Obviously, one key issue was the Myanmar crisis, which has just entered its third year. Other ASEAN members and the international community have been eager to gauge the overall style and attitude of the world’s third-largest democracy towards Myanmar. In a similar vein, they want to know the Naypyitaw junta’s plan for the next six months and beyond.

From the lengthy chair’s statement released at the end of the two-day meeting, it was clear that Indonesia has demonstrated its high-level diplomatic pragmatism in handling sensitive issues as the incoming ASEAN chair. At the retreat, Indonesia wasted no time in embracing the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) and pledging to fully implement the ASEAN peace plans agreed upon in April 2021. At the press conference, ASEAN chair and Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi said that the 5PC is a key step towards addressing the situation in Myanmar in a united manner. That has always been ASEAN’s way of tackling the quagmire.

As the ASEAN chair, Ms Retno has been showing her gentler side in addressing the Myanmar crisis. After the coup in February two years ago, she was one of the most critical voices among ASEAN leaders in condemning the military junta in Naypyitaw. Now she is taking the ASEAN helm, she has to follow the ASEAN consensus and garner support from her colleagues. Being Indonesia, however, there will be some distinctive diplomatic approaches.

At the annual foreign policy press conference last month, Ms Retno revealed that Indonesia would set up the Office of the ASEAN Special Envoy on Myanmar. She will head the office. But she did not provide any further information at the retreat. However, it is clear that the office will be staffed with experienced and trusted diplomats on regional issues.

According to a high-placed source, veteran Indonesian diplomat, Ngurah Swajaya, a former Indonesian ambassador to Singapore, will serve as de facto ASEAN special envoy. Interviews with several officials in ASEAN show Jakarta will not let the Myanmar quagmire dominate the ASEAN agenda this year or, in other words, let Naypyitaw take ASEAN hostage. Fresh from the success of hosting the G20, Indonesia has bigger fish to fry as far as its international profile and the legacy of President Joko Widodo are concerned. At the retreat, ASEAN leaders jointly pressed Myanmar to make “significant progress” in the implementation of the 5PC in order to prepare for an inclusive national dialogue in Myanmar.

Therefore the next six months are pivotal for Indonesia and Myanmar to contemplate their next strategic moves. Indonesia has already reached out to all stakeholders involved in the current conflict. But whether the inclusive national dialogue materialises depends on Naypyitaw’s willingness to engage the National Unity Government (NUG), ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), and People’s Defense Forces (PDF), among others. Both the NUG and the PDFs have been labelled terrorist groups by the military regime.

According to the 45-page leaked document of the meeting held by the Myanmar junta-appointed State Administration Council (SAC) on 23 December last year, 12 of the total 14 administrative states and regions in the country had witnessed so-called terrorist attacks by resistance forces. The SAC has also recorded over 17,825 attacks since 2021. Furthermore, the document also revealed that since the coup, around 1.4 million to 1.8 million people have been displaced internally, and the junta has been able to provide humanitarian aid to 250,000 displaced. In contrast, the rights group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners stated that the Myanmar military regime has, to date, killed a total of 2,273 civilians and arrested more than 15,400.

The six-month extension of emergency rule is necessary for the junta to further consolidate its territorial control if the scheduled election is to be held in August. At this juncture, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to convene unless the Myanmar military gains more territorial control of key constituencies.

To do so, the junta has already intensified the use of air power, both with jet fighters and helicopter gunships, to attack targets since the end of last year, regardless of whether they are military or civilian. In fact, the regime has been pursuing three distinctive offensive aerial strategies aimed at inflicting as many casualties on civilians or groups believed to be connected to the resistance forces.

First of all, the junta will continue to use air power to counterattack locations or positions of resistance forces, especially EAOs. In addition, regime forces will intensify their search and destruction of individuals or groups that provide shelter for the resistance forces. Finally, the junta will initiate attacks on headquarters or income-generating sources along the border with Thailand.

For instance, the attack on Klein Chiang Village in Kyainseikgyi Township in Karen State last month was aimed at undermining Colonel Saw A Wan, a leader of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), because Naypyitaw believes that the DKBA is helping the Karen National Union. Furthermore, later on, two regime aircraft bombed a lead mine in Kyainseikgyi Township, killing three workers and injuring six others to disrupt money-generating mining activities.

Due to the extraordinary situation that the SAC has encountered in the past two years, the current six-month extension of emergency rule could be renewed to ensure that the SAC retains its dominance. A day after the third six-month extension, martial law was imposed on 37 townships in eight states and regions, including resistance strongholds in Sagaing and Magwe. It is foreseeable that fighting between the military regime and resistance groups will be more fierce than ever in the coming days as they want to gain more leverage on the ground if there is any national dialogue. At this juncture, no stakeholders are in the mood for peace talks.

For Thailand, the long frontier with Myanmar will continue to be volatile due to the possible new influx of villagers fleeing aerial attacks in the coming weeks. Plans to provide more humanitarian assistance to the border areas on both sides have been mapped out and are awaiting full implementation.

Meanwhile, efforts continue to convene meetings among all stakeholders, think tanks and international organizations among countries that have a high stake in Myanmar’s peace and stability. The objective is to jump-start political dialogue to create an atmosphere conducive to a more comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue later on.

In the near future, to ensure the effectiveness of the implementation of the 5PC, there could be a forward operating base in Thailand, with the approval of ASEAN and cooperation with the ASEAN chair, to facilitate the planned humanitarian assistance to those internally displaced villagers and areas affected by the conflict across the border.