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A nameplate with Myanmar inscribed on it sits on a table in front of an empty chair.
Myanmar’s seat was left empty at a recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Achmad Ibrahim/AFP via Getty Images

Myanmar crisis highlights limits of Indonesia’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ as it sets sights on becoming a ‘great regional power’

With regional power comes regional responsibilities – as Indonesia is finding out.

The world’s fourth most populous nation aspires to be a “great regional power” by 2030, playing a stabilizing role in Southeast Asia.

It is getting an early taste of what that entails. As the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Indonesia has been called upon by international bodies, including the United Nations, to show leadership in resolving one of the region’s bloodiest conflict: Myanmar’s civil war. And progress has been slow.

As a scholar of international relations and Indonesian foreign policy, I see the nation’s handling of the Myanmar crisis as an early test of how Indonesia could fare as the region’s great power.

The limits of ‘quiet diplomacy’

The civil war between the military and the anti-military groups in Myanmar has claimed thousands of lives. It followed a 2021 coup that returned the country to military rule, with the junta embarking on a brutal crackdown of the opposition. Since then, the ruling generals have encountered fierce resistance from armed groups.

In April 2021, a few months into the conflict, ASEAN leaders meeting in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta agreed to a “five-point consensus” on Myanmar, calling for an immediate cease-fire, constructive dialogue between all parties, a special envoy to help mediate the conflict, humanitarian assistance from ASEAN and a delegation visit to Myanmar to facilitate the peace process.

More than two years on, the first point of the five-point consensus has still not been implemented, and chances of a cease-fire look remote under the current level of fighting. In May, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, responding to criticism over perceived inaction over the crisis, said Indonesia was relying on “quiet diplomacy.” Such a policy forms part of Indonesia’s attempts to balance the nonintervention principal of ASEAN – by which meddling in the domestic affairs of neighboring states is unacceptable – with the need to address the internal crisis in Myanmar. But efforts to influence the behavior of another state through discreet negotiations or actions have clearly not yet succeeded.

It doesn’t bode well for Indonesia’s desire to be a stabilizing factor in the region.

In theory, Indonesia should be well placed to assume regional leadership. It is a member of the G20 gathering of richest nations and is poised to have the world’s fourth largest economy within two decades. Its military is ranked the most powerful in the region. Added to this economic and military might is a willingness to assume the role of regional leader.

Yet Indonesia’s calls for a cease-fire in Myanmar have fallen on deaf ears, in part because the warring parties know Indonesia is unwilling to punish Myanmar for failing to end the fighting. Any such punitive action would be deemed unacceptable under the ASEAN nonintervention principle.

No end to war

The pressure that Indonesia may have been able to assert on Myamar’s warring parties has been blunted for a number of reasons.

Theoretically, the high cost of war should encourage combatants to the negotiating table – the idea being that when coffers dry up and civilian suffering mounts, peace becomes a more attractive option. Yet the worsening violence on the ground suggests that both sides are absorbing the costs.

Myanmar’s ruling junta is aided here by revenue generated from the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, which allows the military to finance the purchasing of arms. And despite sanctions imposed by the United States and several Western nations, the generals are able to replenish weapon stocks through deals with countries including Russia, China and India.

Part of the problem is that implementation of the current targeted round of Western sanctions partly relies on support from other countries. And the story of sanctioned arms dealers such as business tycoon Tay Za, who has been accused by the U.S. of supplying arms and equipment to the junta but still manages to operate his business from Singapore, provides an example of how traders are able to circumvent international sanctions.

Meanwhile, through the BURMA Act – incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act and signed by President Joe Biden in December 2022 – the U.S. pledged to provide nonlethal assistance, such as medical supplies, radar equipment and armored military vehicles, to pro-democratic forces in Burma.

Although this is welcomed by supporters of Myanmar democracy, it nonetheless makes it harder to force a weakened opposition to the negotiating table – especially if it believes it is winning the war.

M16 assault rifles lean against a wall that appears to be blood-stained.
Myanmar’s civil war: well armed and bloody. Daphne Wesdorp/Getty Images)

And finally, although the junta is finding it difficult to force an emboldened pro-democracy opposition into submission, it is still the strongest party in the conflict. Knowing that might make it more reluctant to negotiate. As it is, any mediator faces the problem of trying to force a military junta used to being in power and accustomed to impunity over its actions to the table.

So what is Indonesia’s role?

So where does that leave Indonesia’s attempt to play regional peacemaker?

Patience is understandably running thin for international observers who watch the military junta committing atrocities on the opposition daily. Some have called on Indonesia to suspend Myanmar’s ASEAN membership.

Although Indonesia and the rest of ASEAN member states decided not to invite the representative of the junta to attend this year’s summit, I believe they are unlikely to suspend its ASEAN membership out of concern for destabilizing the region further.

As an aspiring regional power, Indonesia has the ability to harness not only its economic and military weight but its moral voice by continuing to appeal to warring parties to better protect the lives of Myanmar civilians.

Getting the combatants to agree to end the violence might be an unattainable goal during its tenure as the chair of ASEAN. But if Indonesia is to become a stabilizing leader in the region, it will need to continue efforts long after it relinquishes that role in December 2023.

Getting the big guns involved

In the final few months of ASEAN leadership, Indonesia can lay the foundation for a resolution of the Myanmar crisis. That includes holding the junta accountable or at least cutting its capacity to violently attack the anti-junta forces.

Such a goal would require coordinated action among the U.S. and China, as well as other ASEAN members, to exert pressure on Myanmar’s generals.

And here Indonesia can play a role by making sure the Myanmar crisis is not being overlooked by the U.S. and the West in general, or by China, which has continued close ties with Myanmar’s generals. As the emerging regional power, Indonesia’s “quiet diplomacy” can extend to bringing up the issue of Myanmar in high-level meetings in Beijing and Washington, as well as in regional bodies.

In such bilateral discussions, Indonesia can help steer the direction of sanctions. Although the junta has survived multiple Western sanctions, the threat of a well-coordinated round of tougher, targeted sanctions could gradually deprive the junta of resources. Indonesia, can further assist by encouraging regional governments to crack down on sanction-breaking junta supporters supplying military equipment to the generals from places such as Singapore. Similarly, coordination with Washington over the type of lethal assistance it provides the opposition could support humanitarian efforts while not inflaming the situation further.

Perhaps before becoming the “great regional power” it aspires to be, Indonesia is best placed to lean into its position as a conduit to the current geopolitical power brokers in Washington and Beijing.

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