ASEAN members may have their differences but the bloc remains united and central to the conduct of regional affairs, Indonesia’s president asserted on Tuesday amid criticism of the grouping’s inadequacy in tackling the Myanmar crisis.
Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, whose country holds the Southeast Asian bloc’s chair for 2023, was speaking on day one of its three-day summit in Jakarta, as observers questioned ASEAN’s cohesion and relevance in the face of regional challenges such as the post-coup situation in Myanmar and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
“Lately, I’ve been hearing questions related to ASEAN: will ASEAN break up and not be able to unite? Can the ASEAN ship keep sailing?” Jokowi told his counterparts at the start of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.
“As a family member and as the chair of ASEAN, I want to affirm that ASEAN’s unity is still well maintained. Unity does not mean there is no difference of opinion,” he said, even after member-state Thailand broke ranks and engaged in talks with the Burmese junta.
And despite criticism about it being ineffective, Jokowi said a five-point plan that the bloc had agreed to with the Myanmar junta chief should remain the main guide for resolving the conflict there.
“We need more tactical and extraordinary efforts for the implementation of the five-point consensus,” he said, referring to the regional consensus that was struck within a few months after the Burmese military overthrew an elected government in February 2021.
The five-point plan includes ending violence, starting dialogue, providing humanitarian aid, appointing a special envoy, and the envoy visiting Myanmar.
The junta meanwhile has ignored the five-point consensus. Since the coup on Feb. 1, 2021, the military has cracked down on mass protests, killed more than 4,000 people and arrested tens of thousands more, human rights groups say.
Jokowi said Indonesia had achieved some trust building through engagements with stakeholders in Myanmar, “except with the military junta.”
Retno Marsudi, the Indonesian foreign minister, said the Myanmar crisis was “very difficult, very complicated and not easy to solve.” There had been no significant progress in implementing the consensus despite Indonesia’s engagement efforts, she added.
However, ASEAN leaders had agreed to form a troika of current, previous and incoming chairs of the regional bloc to deal with the Myanmar crisis, she said. Such a troika would then include 2022 chair Cambodia, this year’s chair Indonesia, and upcoming chair Laos.
Hun Manet, who inherited power last month from Hun Sen, his strongman father, was among the heads of government attending the Jakarta summit. New Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisit was unable to join the others because his cabinet was being sworn in by the king on the same day.
Meanwhile, the Philippines said Tuesday that it was ready to replace Myanmar as the rotating chair of the 10-nation bloc in 2026.
“We will fortify the foundations of our community-building and navigate ASEAN as it embarks on a new chapter,” Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said.
Some media reports in mid-August cited unnamed diplomatic sources as saying that Myanmar was withdrawing from chairing ASEAN in 2026 because of the domestic crisis.
Malaysia, a particular vocal critic of the Myanmar junta, is set to be ASEAN chair in 2025. On Monday, the country’s top diplomat expressed Malaysia’s frustration at the Burmese military’s reneging on the five-point consensus.
“Malaysia and other member countries gave their views that we cannot allow this to continue without strong and effective measures imposed on the junta,” Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir told reporters after ASEAN foreign ministers met in Jakarta on the summit’s eve.
Malaysian media quoted Zambry as also saying that ASEAN top diplomats would urge their leaders to review the five-point plan. Zambry’s predecessor, Saifuddin Abdullah, had called for abandoning the consensus outright and devising a new time-bound plan.
Many regional observers aren’t fans of the consensus either.
Indonesia lacked a clear strategy and had failed to make progress on the ASEAN five-point plan under its chairmanship, said Dinna Prapto Raharja, an international relations lecturer at Paramadina University in Jakarta.
“The five-point initiative has been rolling along without any direction or urgency,” she told BenarNews.
She also questioned Jokowi’s statement that ASEAN’s unity was still well maintained.
“Anyone who follows foreign affairs issues can see that it is divided,” she added.
Another analyst wondered what Jokowi meant by calling for “extraordinary efforts” to implement the five-point consensus.
“I have no idea what they are, but I assume they are more of a hope,” Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, told BenarNews.
“If they are called extraordinary, they should be something that is out of the comfort zone.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim raised the issue of the disputed South China Sea in his address to his ASEAN counterparts, saying it must be managed in a peaceful and rational way through dialogue in accordance with international law.
He was referring to the “2023 edition of the standard map of China,” which showed China’s claims over most of the South China Sea overlapping with those of ASEAN members including, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam.
These members as well as Taiwan objected to the map, which Beijing released last month amid tensions with the United States over Taiwan.
The 2023 map covers Taiwan and most of the West Philippine Sea, particularly the contested Spratly Islands.
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. While Jakarta is not an active claimant in the South China Sea, it has been locked with China in tensions over the Natuna Islands.
The three-day ASEAN meetings include talks between the bloc and dialogue partners at the East Asia Summit.
Among those scheduled to attend the talks are U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Jason Gutierrez in Manila, Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur, and Almira Wang in Jakarta contributed to the report.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.