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ASEAN meet in Jakarta today to discuss Myanmar and South China Sea

Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are meeting in Jakarta today, with Myanmar’s deadlocked political shambles dominating discussions.

Indonesia, the ASEAN rotating chair this year, says it has succeeded in engaging with all stakeholders in Myanmar, where the military seized power by ousting the democratically-elected government in a February 2021 coup.

But it is unknown whether Jakarta will detail to the nine other ASEAN member states what it has achieved or whether it will discuss concrete measures to break the deadlock amid the Burmese junta’s ongoing campaign of violence against pro-democracy forces, including civilians.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are also headlining the agenda at the 2-day meeting. A series of ASEAN-sponsored foreign ministerial talks with its partner nations will be held in Jakarta later this week.

Myanmar isn’t taking part in the meetings as Indonesia is abiding by the ASEAN position only allowing the junta to send a non-political representative.

Myanmar did, however, participate in an informal forum for some ASEAN member states hosted by Thailand’s outgoing foreign minister last month, demonstrating the divisions between ASEAN countries that accept military rule to some extent and those that do not (Thailand’s quasi democratic government and 2017 ‘Constitution’ is still heavily influenced by the 2014 Thai army coup).

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore refused to attend the forum in Thailand due to the involvement of Myanmar. Nothing useful was resolved at the meeting.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Reno Marsudi declared last Friday that the country has held talks with all stakeholders in Myanmar.

“It included my in-person engagements either with NUG and SAC foreign ministers for several times.”

He was referring to the National Unity Government, the Myanmar government-in-exile, and the State Administration Council, the name the junta awarded themselves.

“Now, it is time to move forward, encouraging a national, inclusive dialogue among all of the stakeholders.”

But little, or no, ¬†progress has been made regarding a five-point consensus reached between Myanmar and other ASEAN members in April 2021. It aimed to end violence against the junta’s political opponents and civilian protesters.

It hasn’t.

Thousands of Burmese have been killed in crackdowns by the junta as well as in conflicts between the military and pro-democracy forces. Many political dissidents, including the country’s de facto leader until the coup Aung San Suu Kyi, have been detained following staged show trials.

Expectations that Indonesia would tackle the Myanmar issue had been high, in comparison to last year’s chair Cambodia whose leader Hun Sen has a long history of attacking his own domestic political opponents. Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s PM for 37 years.

Some ASEAN nations are now sceptical about Jakarta’s initiatives given its reluctance to share with fellow members how it has engaged with Myanmar, taking a so-called approach of “quiet diplomacy”, the usual do-nothing approach of ASEAN countries regarding their neighbour’s political matters.

Commentators have said Indonesia should consider balancing its preference for working behind the scenes with making public disclosures and have stressed Jakarta also needs to “show assertiveness”, along with other like-minded members such as Malaysia and Singapore.

ASEAN foreign ministers are also discuss issues surrounding the South China Sea as they have been in negotiations over adopting a “code of conduct agreement governing the maritime area.

ASEAN and China are currently drawing up the code to help avert future confrontations.

Last year, the region agreed in principle to admit East Timor as its 11th member, granting the nation observer status until it joins the bloc.

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