Mixed reactions to Indonesia’s plan to send military general to Myanmar for talks

The Myanmar crisis is expected to be among the topics discussed at the 32nd Asean Coordinating Council and Asean Foreign Ministers’ Retreat. - Reuters

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network): Indonesia, which on Friday (Feb 3) kicks off the first Asean ministerial meeting under its chairmanship, has drawn mixed reactions from political observers over its plan to send a top general to Myanmar to engage military leaders there.

Sending a person from a military background might facilitate dialogue to resolve the political crisis, but it could be misread as an endorsement of the junta regime, analysts told The Straits Times.

In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, President Joko Widodo said his government has plans to send a general to Myanmar “as soon as possible” in the hope of demonstrating to military rulers how Indonesia successfully transitioned to democracy.

“This is a matter of approach. We have the experience – here in Indonesia, the situation was the same,” Widodo was quoted as saying. “This experience can be addressed, how Indonesia began its democracy.”

During the era of President Suharto, a military strongman, the Indonesian Armed Forces, or TNI, had been deeply involved in governance, in addition to maintaining law, order and stability.

After 32 years in power, Suharto was forced to quit following mass anti-government protests in 1998, marking the beginning of military reforms to transition to democracy.

Among other things, the military is not allowed to be involved in politics and had to give up its reserved seats in Parliament, and officials eyeing a run for elections must first resign from their posts.

Dr Adriana Elisabeth, an international relations lecturer at University of Pelita Harapan, said the Myanmar junta would be more welcoming of an Indonesian general, especially one with working knowledge and experience from the Suharto era.

“Myanmar under the junta needs to be approached by a leader with military background,” she said. “I don’t think sending a (civilian) special envoy is a good idea because this will push Myanmar into a corner. If Myanmar does not agree to talk to the envoy, there will be no dialogue.”

But Sri Yanuarti, a senior political researcher at the Jakarta-based National Research and Innovation Agency, said: “The visit will somewhat justify the military approach as the only solution to overcome the crisis. Shouldn’t a more democratic model involving various stakeholders, not only the military, be encouraged at this time?”

“Furthermore, we must ensure that sending a general is not seen as an approval or blessing for the Myanmar military to hold its election,” she added, referring to the general election planned by the Myanmar military this year.

The Myanmar crisis is expected to be among the topics discussed at the 32nd Asean Coordinating Council on Friday and Asean Foreign Ministers’ Retreat on Saturday.

Indonesia, which assumed the Asean chairmanship in November 2022, will focus on the theme Asean Matters: Epicentrum of Growth during its term. It hopes to encourage stronger cooperation among member countries in areas such as energy and food crises, while aiming to maintain stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific region.

Indonesia is expected to hold Asean Summits in May and September.

In January, its Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said she will head the new Office of Special Envoy and seek to engage with “all stakeholders” in Myanmar, as part of Asean’s strategy on dealing with the crisis.

She said the regional bloc will not be held “hostage” by the Myanmar junta’s lack of progress in implementing the five-point consensus that was adopted by Asean in April 2021.

The appointment of a special envoy and a visit by the special envoy to Myanmar were two points in the consensus, which also calls for an end to violence in the country, a constructive dialogue among all parties and humanitarian assistance by Asean.

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