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ASEAN foreign ministers meet in the shadow of the Myanmar crisis

Jakarta, Indonesia — Southeast Asia’s foreign ministers meet in the Indonesian capital on Friday for talks that are bound to be dominated by the deteriorating situation in Myanmar, despite an agenda centered on food and energy security and financial and health cooperation.

Myanmar is part of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but the annual ministerial retreat is held in Jakarta without Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin.

The absence was compelled by the fallout from Myanmar’s lack of cooperation in implementing a five-stage deal struck in 2021 between ASEAN leaders and Myanmar’s military leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

In the agreement, Myanmar’s military leaders pledged to allow an ASEAN special envoy to meet ousted and imprisoned leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others to promote dialogue to ease the crisis.

Last year, when Cambodia chaired ASEAN, Min Aung Hlaing was not invited to the November meeting of ASEAN leaders in Phnom Penh after Myanmar refused to meet an ASEAN envoy with her.

Analysts said the shadow of Myanmar’s military takeover loomed well over the foreign ministers’ meeting, even as Indonesia, this year’s ASEAN leader, is trying to quell fears that the issue will not hold the bloc “hostage”.

Earlier in the country’s year as regional bloc chairman, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo said late last month that ASEAN will continue to contribute to the Indo-Pacific as a peaceful and stable region and sustain regional economic growth.

“Economic crises, energy crises, food crises and warfare, we face them all this year,” Widodo said. “ASEAN will remain essential and relevant to people in the region and beyond as ASEAN is the epicenter of growth.”

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Indonesia will ensure the focus is on developing the regional bloc as a community and benefiting from ASEAN’s economic growth, which is always growing faster than the global economy.

“The issue of Myanmar must not hold hostage the process of strengthening the development of the ASEAN community,” Marsudi said last month while outlining Indonesia’s foreign policy for the year.

She said ASEAN was disappointed by its lack of progress in Myanmar over the past two years, despite growing backlash and global threats of sanctions and political exclusion.

“Despite the best efforts of the Chairman and all ASEAN member countries, the implementation of the five-point consensus by the Myanmar military junta has not made any significant progress,” she said.

Marsudi said that Indonesia is setting up an office of an ASEAN special envoy for Myanmar in Jakarta to help advance the bloc’s handling of the crisis and she will seek to reach out to “all stakeholders” in Myanmar, noting that there are it is crucial to enable a national dialogue in order to overcome the crisis.

“Indonesia demands that the ASEAN Secretary-General be granted access to all stakeholders,” Marsudi said last month, adding that ASEAN will continue to work with a United Nations special envoy to help Myanmar emerge from the crisis.

Randy Nandyatama, an international analyst from Gajah Mada University, recommends that ASEAN, under the Indonesian chairmanship, review by consensus the basic ASEAN principles of non-interference in the affairs and decisions of other members.

“Some of its mechanisms are too loose, making it difficult for member countries to comply with existing principles,” he said, adding that solving the Myanmar issue is not only important for maintaining stability and prosperity in the region, but also for the Strengthening the Myanmar issue What is important is the legitimacy and function of ASEAN itself as a regional organization that can establish dialogue with Myanmar.

“Resolving the crisis in Myanmar is the biggest challenge for the Indonesian presidency,” Nandyatama said.

Another focus for Indonesia as this year’s ASEAN chair is peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, Marsudi said, signaling that ASEAN will not be a pawn in the growing tensions between the United States and China.

“Many countries have an Indo-Pacific concept and synergy is needed here so that the different concepts do not exacerbate the rivalry,” she said

She added that the Indo-Pacific needs to be addressed not only from a security perspective but also from an economic development perspective, and implementing the ASEAN prospects for the Indo-Pacific is a big step towards maintaining peace, stability and prosperity.

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