Asia Politics

ASEAN Summit: Time to Focus Beyond Myanmar Issues

JAKARTA – As I strolled along the beach in Labuan Bajo, I was met with the island’s breathtaking views.

Greeted with scenes that belong on a postcard, of waves crashing against the shore and a seemingly endless series of undulating hills, it is no wonder this fishing town, located in the eastern part of Indonesia, has steadily seen a growth in popularity.

Out the window of the hotel where I stay, I can see many pinisi boats that are anchored at the bay.

These boats are a type of traditional vessel from Southern Sulawesi and along with the bustling activities of the fisherman at a nearby market, one cannot help but be nostalgic about the folklore that our ancestors were once resilient seafarers, a reality I hope we still carry to this day.

Now, in a matter of days, Labuan Bajo will be the center of global interest, not particularly for its beauty and proximity to the Komodo Dragon’s sanctuary, but rather as the venue for the ASEAN Summit under Indonesia’s chairmanship.

Several months have now passed since Indonesia assumed its chairmanship of the regional grouping in 2023. The 42nd summit next week will give the ASEAN leaders the opportunity to discuss and impart their wisdom on various topics of mutual interest.

Topics for their discussions range from the strengthening of ASEAN as an institution, the post-pandemic health infrastructure and economic recovery, latest developments at a regional and global level all the way to ASEAN Vision post-2025.

These will be discussed under Indonesia’s chairmanship theme titled, ASEAN Matters: Epicenter of Economic Growth.

Interestingly, Labuan Bajo as the venue for a series of ASEAN activities from May 6 to 11 somewhat reflects the ASEAN theme.

The city matters because it functions as a linchpin for greater economic activities and as a busy hub for the surrounding areas.

With extensive development projects currently taking place in Labuan Bajo, the hope for the city to be transformed into a new center of economic growth in Eastern Indonesia is gaining much currency.

In consonance with the high hopes for Labuan Bajo, ASEAN is also the subject of high expectations from countries within and beyond ASEAN. ASEAN is expected to provide meaningful answers and be able to respond aptly to various challenges in our time.

Such expectation is derived from ASEAN’s ability to adopt courses of actions through different times, from the modest to the transformative, leading to an organization that is resilient, afloat and successful. This year, hopes are further inflated with Indonesia serving at ASEAN’s helm.

Many pundits regard Indonesia as primus inter pares, or first among equals, when it comes to the member countries in ASEAN. Yet Indonesia has always been cautious in throwing its weight within the organization, out of respect for the consensus-making process.

Whereas ASEAN leaders are in a position to impart their wisdom on a plethora of topics, unfortunately observers and pundits have a tendency to focus more on Myanmar’s debacle. As such, Indonesia’s treatment of this issue as ASEAN chair will set the parameters of success in their eyes.

Two years have passed since the military putsch on Feb. 1, 2021, that derailed the democratization process in Myanmar. Indonesia, like many other countries within and outside of the Southeast Asian region, was taken aback by this turn of events.

For Indonesia, the coup was a slap in the face. Indonesia was among the few countries that subscribed to the credo that engagement with the military apparatchiks, as opposed to isolation, would bear more positive outcomes.

With this in mind, in 2021 Indonesia initiated a meeting among all the ASEAN leaders in the ASEAN Secretariat to deliberate on this dramatic development in Myanmar.

The meeting’s outcomes, the five points of consensus (5PC), serve as a yardstick for successive ASEAN chairs to assess the commitment of the junta in redressing their wrongdoing.

While the jury is still out, we cannot say even with slight confidence the junta has been showing good faith in the implementation of the 5PC.

Having said that, perhaps we should reserve our judgment on Indonesia’s efforts on this issue thus far. As stated by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Indonesia has been approaching Myanmar’s issue with less fanfare as we are not fond of megaphone diplomacy.

What cannot be ignored is the fear that with the prolongation of Myanmar’s challenges, the country might stall ASEAN cooperation for many years to come.

Nevertheless, ASEAN cooperation and initiatives should not be reduced only to Myanmar’s issue. It would also be unfortunate if the international community failed to appreciate ASEAN’s sustained contribution globally, especially in this era marked with greater uncertainty.

In retrospect, the ASEAN community continues to serve as a locomotive of economic growth and, somewhat, as an anchor of stability in the region.

The Southeast Asian region and, by the same token, the Asia-Pacific region, would not be the same without the presence of ASEAN along with its tangible and intangible contributions.

Successive ASEAN chairs have tried time and again to make sure ASEAN remains relevant and can serve as a beacon of hope that radiates positivity far beyond the region.

In this light, it would therefore prove futile to measure the success of Indonesia’s chairmanship in ASEAN 2023 solely by the ongoing stalemate in Myanmar.

Let us hope the summits in Labuan Bajo and later on in Jakarta will further affirm ASEAN’s stature as one of the most successful regional organizations.

Source: Asia News Network