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Jokowi's call for Asean meeting on Myanmar a surprise, bold move

President Joko Widodo urged that violence be halted and democracy, peace and stability be restored in Myanmar.PHOTO: REUTERS

Indonesian President Joko Widodo's recent call for a high-level meeting in Asean to discuss the Myanmar crisis was a bold move and unusual for a leader who tends to shy away from foreign policy, analysts say.

"This is quite a strong statement (from the president), especially considering Asean's usual 'quiet' and non-interference approach," Dr Deasy Simandjuntak, associate fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, told The Straits Times.

"It is a good call for a leaders' meeting to coordinate a unified effort to address the crisis. So far, Asean has been criticised for not doing more to condemn the military takeover and crackdown," she added, referring to the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), of which Myanmar is a member.

Nearly two months since the Feb 1 military coup which ousted the elected civilian government in Myanmar, the scale of violence in the country has only escalated with more than 200 protesters killed in security crackdowns, according to news reports.

Mr Widodo, or Jokowi, as he is better known, on March 19 urged that violence be halted and democracy, peace and stability be restored in Myanmar. He also proposed that Asean heads of state get together to discuss the situation.

Only weeks earlier, Asean foreign ministers had attended a virtual meeting following shuttle diplomacy undertaken by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.

Asean, she said then, was ready to facilitate a dialogue with Myanmar when required.

Indonesia's move reflected its "bebas aktif", or "independent and active", foreign policy as well as its 1945 State Constitution, which guide the country to play an active role in pursuing international peace and stability and achieving a long-term solution to conflicts, said Dr Beginda Pakpahan, a political and economic analyst on global affairs at the University of Indonesia.

"It's constructive engagement or positive engagement by Indonesia which requires various parties to sit together to find common ground," he told The Straits Times.

Instability in Myanmar would have a ripple effect in the region, and Indonesia was - as its tradition dictates - seeking a solution, he added.

During the Vietnamese boat people crisis in the 1970s, Indonesia accommodated thousands of refugees on Galang island, close to Singapore, before they were resettled.

Indonesia was also key in brokering a 1991 peace deal that marked the end of a long drawn-out Cambodian-Vietnamese civil war.

"(In the current situation), Indonesia might have proposed, but it will respect Brunei as Asean chair to decide," said Dr Beginda, adding that any resolution will still be in line with the Asean Charter.

Mr Johannes Nugroho, political analyst and writer from Surabaya, however, felt it was "certainly out of character for any Asean leader" to call a leaders' summit specifically to address the Myanmar crisis.

"One might say it is very unAsean-like. I'm not sure the Myanmar leadership would appreciate being put on the spot like this," he told The Straits Times.

In contrast, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took a more subtle approach in nudging Myanmar towards democracy, he added.

In the lead-up to the 2015 Myanmar election, Dr Yudhoyono spoke with his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein on the sidelines of an Asean Summit "meant to retain face for the Myanmar leadership by not putting them under undue pressure", said Mr Johannes.

While Indonesia's extent of influence in Myanmar's democratic transition was hard to quantify, the Indonesian media had made a big deal out of it, hence creating a burden of history for Mr Widodo's administration to pull off the same feat as Myanmar regressed into military rule, he noted.

The President's focus had mainly been on domestic issues, observers have said over the years.

Mr Widodo has given Ms Retno a free hand in foreign policy all along, including Indonesia's policy towards Myanmar, Mr Johannes said.

"But he will definitely try to avoid being known as a lesser president than his predecessor. This is why he has surprisingly shown an interest in Myanmar now," he added.

An editorial on Tuesday (March 23) by The Jakarta Post cited sources at the State Palace as saying that Mr Widodo was trying to convince Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah to organise an "emergency" summit as soon as possible, which, if necessary, will include members such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.

If that happens, the four countries will have to report on the results of the meeting when Asean leaders regroup in April or May, the newspaper added.

Dr Deasy said special envoys from outside of the government could also be sent to Myanmar to discuss with all parties following the leaders' meeting.

Indonesia was "in a good position to coordinate the steps that Asean would take" given its own transition from an authoritarian military regime under former president Suharto to a democratically elected government, she added.

It remains to be seen if Myanmar would respond positively to Asean.

But, in the past, Dr Deasy noted, Myanmar has allowed Asean to assist with some internal challenges such as on the Rakhine issue.

She added: "For the sake of the people in Myanmar and regional stability, Asean has to make sure that the regional grouping's effort will restore democracy, respect for human rights and peace in the country."