© Reuters. An Indonesian Special Air Force personnel guards at the Komodo International airport, ahead of the ASEAN Summit held in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara province, Indonesia, May 9, 2023. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan
By Kate Lamb
LABUAN BAJO, Indonesia (Reuters) – Southeast Asian leaders gathering in Indonesia on Wednesday will wrangle over how to resolve the crisis in Myanmar as patience in the ASEAN bloc wears thin over escalating violence in the military-ruled country.
The summit comes just days after unidentified assailants shot at a convoy carrying ASEAN diplomats and aid workers delivering supplies in western Myanmar, raising frustrations over the junta’s failure to end violence and ensure safe humanitarian access.
Myanmar’s security situation has been deteriorating since its military seized power in a 2021 coup and embarked on a campaign to crush its opponents.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has urged the junta to implement a “five-point peace consensus” agreed in late 2021 that includes ending all hostilities and engaging all stakeholders. It barred the generals from attending high-level meetings until progress is made.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said on Tuesday implementation of the five-point plan had been discussed this week and that ASEAN had an “instrumental” role to play for peace, stability and prosperity in the region.
As chair of ASEAN this year, Indonesia has also been quietly engaging Myanmar’s military, shadow government and armed ethnic groups to kick-start peace talks.
“ASEAN is doing as much as it can really because when you are there on the ground it’s not that easy,” Philippine foreign minister Enrique Manalo said.
But some have called on ASEAN, which espouses a policy of non-intervention in members’ sovereign affairs, to take a harder stance against Myanmar.
“To leave the seat empty at ASEAN summits is actually their comfort zone, they don’t have to be held accountable,” said former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, referring to Myanmar’s military leadership.
“Excluding the junta is only part of a series of steps that should be taken.”
He said the schism over Myanmar presents an “unprecedented challenge” to the bloc’s unity.
“This is the first time…where ASEAN basically has been short-circuited because we have now in effect the nine member states and Myanmar that is not participating,” he said.
Leaders meeting in the eastern Indonesian coastal town of Labuan Bajo are also expected to discuss a code of conduct being negotiated with China over the disputed South China Sea and a roadmap for East Timor’s planned membership in the bloc among other issues.