ASEAN is ‘at a loss for ideas’ on how to address Myanmar crisis, says Indonesia’s ex-foreign minister

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ASEAN is ‘at a loss for ideas’ on how to address Myanmar crisis, says Indonesia’s ex-foreign minister

Myanmar migrant workers hold a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi during the march to mark International Labor Day in Bangkok, calling for the workers rights and protesting against the Myanmar military government on May 1, 2023.

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Southeast Asian nations must adopt a cohesive position on Myanmar’s civil conflict and the ASEAN summit is a chance for leaders to “recalibrate,” Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s former foreign minister told CNBC. 

“I get the sense that ASEAN is at a loss for ideas … one can speak with eloquence about one individual member state’s wish to happen in Myanmar. But first and foremost, we need to have a common ASEAN position,” he told CNBC’s JP Ong on “Street Signs Asia.”

The 43rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit kicked off in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta on Tuesday, with Myanmar’s political crisis and the South China Sea disputes set to dominate discussions.

The 10-nation bloc is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

This is the second year in a row that Myanmar was not invited to the regional meeting, following the military coup in February 2021 which saw its elected leader Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi ousted from power. 

At the moment, I’m reminded more about the divisions rather than the unity … this is not only a litmus test for ASEAN, but in my view is an existential threat to ASEAN.

Marty Natalegawa

Indonesia’s former foreign minister

Natalegawa said that while it is commendable the junta is excluded from the meetings, ASEAN member states have become “a little bit divided” over the past year in addressing Myanmar’s prolonged civil strife. 

The bloc has long operated on the principle of non-interference to ensure sovereignty of member states, but some countries urged the bloc to take bolder action.

Malaysia, for example, called for the imposition of “strong” measures against Myanmar’s ruling generals, according to a Reuters report last month.  

“At the moment, I’m reminded more about the divisions rather than the unity … this is not only a litmus test for ASEAN, but in my view is an existential threat to ASEAN,” Natalegawa added. 

In April 2021, Myanmar’s junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and the other nine ASEAN nations reached an agreement on the Five-Point Consensus, which called for the immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, and dialogue among the parties involved.

Myanmar’s military administration, however, has not implemented the peace plan — despite agreeing to it two months after the democratic government was overthrown by the coup.

‘A la carte regionalism’ 

Another issue that could test the ability of ASEAN to act as a cohesive bloc is the dispute in the South China Sea. 

“Some ASEAN member states in dispute feel that they are not being provided a common ASEAN home, so as if they are left on their own devices to deal with this issue,” said Natalegawa.

We must not allow countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei … [to] feel that their security needs are being unmet by ASEAN.

Marty Natalegawa

Indonesia’s former foreign minister

Just last week, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam rejected China’s latest South China Sea map, which denoted its claims to sovereignty.

The new map of its heavily contested U-shaped line cuts into the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

“We must not allow countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei … [to] feel that their security needs are being unmet by ASEAN,” Natalegawa added. 

“Otherwise, we will have an a la carte regionalism. People will pick and choose the bit of regional cooperation they like.” 

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