JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesia plans to send a top general to Myanmar to talk to its junta leaders in the hope of showing Myanmar’s military rulers how Indonesia made a successful transition to democracy, President Joko Widodo said on Wednesday, February 1.
Southeast Asian biggest economy takes on the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year and with it the responsibility of trying to resolve the region’s perennial problem of the suppression of democracy in fellow member Myanmar.
“This is a matter of approach. We have the experience, here in Indonesia, the situation was the same,” the president, who is widely known as Jokowi, told Reuters in an interview in his offices in Jakarta.
“This experience can be addressed, how Indonesia began its democracy.”
Indonesia, now the world’s third-largest democracy, was ruled by military leader Suharto for more than three decades before he stepped down amid mass protests and an economic crisis in 1998.
The military took over in Myanmar in 1962, isolating the country and suppressing dissent for decades until a tentative opening up began in 2011.
But its experiment with democracy, which included elections swept by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, came to end and two years ago when the military ousted Suu Kyi’s government, reimposed strict military rule and crushed protests.
With Myanmar again drawing Western condemnation and sanctions, ASEAN came up with a five-point plan for it, including an end to violence, dialogue, humanitarian assistance, and a visit by an ASEAN envoy to all sides.
But Myanmar’s generals, while paying lip service to the ASEAN effort, have shown no inclination to implement it, and previous ASEAN envoys have achieved little.
Jokowi, speaking on the second anniversary of Myanmar’s 2021 coup, said he was committed to the plan but added that ASEAN would “not be held hostage” to the Myanmar conflict and if there was no progress it would “act decisively”.
He did not elaborate on any action.
‘Epicenter of growth’
Jokowi said he did not rule out travelling to Myanmar himself, but acknowledged that dialogue would likely be “easier” between officials from similar backgrounds.
The president declined to say who he hoped to send “as soon as possible” but suggested the person he had in mind was involved in Indonesia’s reforms.
ASEAN has seen differences over how to handle Myanmar with some members, like Thailand, hopeful of engaging with it through initiatives like an unofficial forum in December that was boycotted by half the bloc.
Other members have appeared increasingly frustrated with the Myanmar military and are keen to maintain a ban on its top officials taking part in ASEAN forums.
Managing rifts over Myanmar, and escalating tension in the disputed South China Sea, will be among the main challenges for Indonesia in its role as ASEAN chair.
As president of the Group of Twenty (G20) last year, Indonesia positioned itself as a diplomatic bridge on the crisis between Russia and Ukraine and managed, against the odds, to get a joint declaration across the line at a leaders’ summit in Bali in November.
Now Jokowi will have to try to manage the various geopolitical rivalries while keeping the region’s focus on his priority of economic growth.
“The situation is not easy,” he said,
“ASEAN must continue to be peaceful region and also ASEAN must continue to be the epicentre of growth.”
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