The Latest on Southeast Asia: May 11, 2023

Southeast Asian leaders convened in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia, on May 9 to 11 for the first of two ASEAN summits this year. Timor-Leste prime minister Taur Matan Ruak attended for the first time as an observer, and leaders discussed a roadmap for the country’s full accession to ASEAN. Myanmar was not represented at the political level and Thailand sent Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai due to upcoming elections this weekend.

For its year as ASEAN chairman, Indonesia has chosen the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth.” Jakarta hopes to champion issues to spur economic development such as strengthening health architecture, energy security, regional financial stability, and digitizing the tourism sector. But the ongoing crisis in Myanmar dominated the summit. Just one day prior to its start, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo condemned an attack against a diplomatic and humanitarian convoy in northeast Myanmar’s Shan State. The incident involved staff from the Indonesian and Singaporean embassies in Yangon and delegates from the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance. It is still unclear who perpetrated the attack. ASEAN released an official statement condemning the attack with the familiar parroted phrase, “we were deeply concerned with ongoing violence in Myanmar and urged the immediate cessation of all forms of violence and the use of force.”

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi announced last week that Indonesia has been quietly engaging with Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government, the junta’s State Administration Council, and with China, India, and Thailand to build trust and further dialogue, in an effort she called “non-megaphone diplomacy.” But Myanmar’s military regime has continued to ignore the Five-Point Consensus peace plan negotiated with ASEAN in April 2021 with few consequences. Both Retno and Jokowi have reiterated that the violence in Myanmar must stop, even as Jokowi bluntly acknowledged that the junta has made no progress on the Five-Point Consensus. Nonetheless, Retno also said that a lack of progress did not mean ASEAN should give up. Analysts have noted that it is crucial for Indonesia to make progress on resolving the crisis this year before handing off the chairmanship position to Laos, which is more likely to be accepting of the junta.

In addition to Myanmar, leaders discussed the perennial negotiations on an ASEAN-China code of conduct in the South China Sea, economic partnerships to strengthen the electric vehicle ecosystem, and combatting human trafficking. Over the weekend, Indonesia’s foreign ministry said that it had freed 20 Indonesia citizens who were trafficked to Myanmar as part of a cyber scam. Cybercrime rings in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos linked to Chinese gangs and targeting Southeast Asian workers proliferated during the pandemic and have been an increasing issue of concern in the past year. As part of Indonesia’s economic agenda, the ASEAN chair also hopes to establish a long-term “ASEAN 2045” vision for the region to make the bloc more resilient, responsive, and competitive. Although Indonesia posted higher-than-expected growth in the first quarter of 2023 at 5.03 percent, growth across the ASEAN-5 economies is projected to slow down this year. The second ASEAN summit of the year will take place from September 5 to 7 and will include the East Asia Summit, U.S.-ASEAN Summit, and other engagements with the grouping’s dialogue partners.

Karen Lee is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Karen Lee

Karen Lee

Former Research Associate, Southeast Asia Program