Myanmar migrants living in Thailand take part in a demonstration remembering protesters killed while rallying against the military coup in their home country, and calling for the results of the 2020 Myanmar election to be upheld, outside the Indonesian embassy in Bangkok, February 23, 2021. Photo Jack Taylor / AFP

Myanmar’s junta launched its deadliest crackdown yet on pro-democracy protesters opposed to the coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected civilian government, with at least 18 killed by security force gunfire over the weekend. 

The unfolding and increasingly lethal crisis has placed pressure on regional powers to act swiftly to prevent further bloodshed and manage through diplomacy a situation that threatens to tilt the wider region towards instability.

As the region’s preeminent organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is being looked upon to act, with a senior Indonesian diplomat warning “If Asean does not take the initiative in setting a direction, the organization will weaken and [this will] have a serious impact on the region.”

So far, however, Indonesia has struggled to forge an effective and unified response via ASEAN to Myanmar’s crisis, reflecting deep divides and organizational dysfunction that was visible well before Myanmar exploded into coup-caused instability.

Indonesia, one of the world’s largest democracies and ASEAN’s de facto leader, has taken up the cudgels to resolve the crisis on behalf of the regional body.

In the past, Indonesia played a key role in, among others, the democratic transition of Cambodia following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime as well as in the resolution of Thailand-Cambodia border disputes in the early-2010s.

In a bid to diffuse Myanmar’s tensions, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has embarked on shuttle diplomacy to rally the region around a unified and workable solution. Last week, she strategically selected Thailand, which maintains warm ties with Myanmar’s autonomous top brass, for high-level talks with the junta representatives.

In Bangkok, she met her counterpart and veteran Myanmar diplomat Wunna Maung Lwin as part of an ASEAN-led intervention in the crisis.

Indonesia Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi walk after an ASEAN Foreign Minister Meeting on the Rohingya issue in Sedona hotel at Yangon in a pre-coup file photo. Photo: Agencies

She also met Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, who held separate talks with Myanmar’s military-appointed envoy along with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former army commander and coup maker.

During Marsudi’s meeting with her Myanmar counterpart at Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force Base, Indonesia’s chief diplomat reportedly struck a tough line, insisting on “Indonesia’s consistent position” on the need for “exercise [in] self-restraint and refrain[ing] from violence to avoid any casualties and bloodshed.”

She also pushed for an “inclusive democratic transition process” based on “dialogue, reconciliation and trust-building.”

In a thinly-veiled rebuke of the military coup, Marsudi made clear that “Indonesia will always stand with the people of Myanmar”, who voted overwhelmingly for Suu Kyi’s now-deposed government at last year’s November elections.

Aside from emphasizing Indonesia’s position, she also tried to project ASEAN unity on the issue, stating “Thailand has conveyed its agreement [with Indonesia’s position], and so far ASEAN countries have expressed their commitment to support a [special] meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers” to resolve the crisis. 

“We need to keep communicating with all parties so that messages can be conveyed, contributions can be offered, and the situation will not worsen and resolution can be done,” the Indonesian foreign minister during a press conference last week, expressing ASEAN’s commitment to “The safety and wellbeing of the people in Myanmar… [whose] wishes must be heard.”

Indonesia’s diplomatic intervention, however, immediately hit a snag, one that will likely hamstring any further ASEAN attempts to intervene in the crisis.

Reports of Marsudi’s planned visit to Myanmar, the first by any top foreign official since the February 1 coup, were met with public outrage in Yangon.

The Indonesian diplomat was reportedly scheduled to hold meetings with junta leaders as part of a plan to negotiate the guaranteed holding of new democratic elections and a swift political transition out of the current crisis.

A sign is pictured next to flowers as Myanmar migrants living in Thailand take part in a demonstration remembering protesters killed while rallying against the military coup in their home country, and calling for the results of the 2020 Myanmar election to be upheld, outside the Indonesian embassy in Bangkok, February 23, 2021. Photo: AFP/Jack Taylor

In response, hundreds of protesters flocked to Indonesia’s embassy in Yangon, with The Future Nation Alliance, a Myanmar-based civil society group, lambasting the potential visit as “tantamount to recognizing the military junta.”

Amid the widespread outcry, Indonesia denied the existence of such a plan, stating “[now is] not the right time” for an official visit to the country, though it said ASEAN remains “open to the option” as part of broader efforts to broker a peaceful democratic transition.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said that the country’s chief diplomat “is open to the option of visiting Naypyidaw to work on a solution at the regional level, in this case, ASEAN.” 

Meanwhile, Indonesia has also struggled to get all ASEAN members on board following  an early-February meeting between Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in Jakarta, where the two leaders called for a special meeting on the Myanmar crisis.

Last week, Marusdi tweeted that she is working with other ASEAN members “on developments in #ASEAN” and held talks with Brunei’s leaders, the bloc’s current chairman, as well as Singapore for a constructive intervention in Myanmar.

She has also held talks with counterparts from major powers, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as well as the foreign ministers of China, Japan, and India.

The problem, as ever, is that ASEAN operates on a consensus-based decision-making approach.

To date, Myanmar’s junta has categorically rejected proposals for a special meeting on its coup, just as it scuttled earlier ASEAN efforts to intervene in the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attends a ceremony to mark the 69th Martyrs’ Day in Yangon, July 19, 2016. Photo: AFP via Mur Photo/U Aung

Lacking a robust bureaucracy and coordinating power, ASEAN is no position to compel the junta to the negotiating table.

“Mediation is next to impossible now,” renowned Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U tweeted in response to ASEAN’s botched intervention effort.

“What’s needed are creative ways to support the Burmese people at this critical juncture, in their demands for democracy, including the poorest and most vulnerable, who after a year of economic collapse were already facing a catastrophic future,” he added.