Myanmar crisis ‘a litmus test’ for ASEAN, says Indonesia’s ex FM

Marty Natalegawa says ASEAN must tell Myanmar’s military to stop shooting at innocent civilians.

Marty Natalegawa was Indonesia’s foreign minister from 2009 to 2014, including Indonesia’s time as ASEAN chair in 2011 [File: Kevin Abosch/Crisis Group]

Jakarta, Indonesia – As Foreign Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet virtually to discuss the situation in Myanmar, one of the region’s most experienced diplomats told Al Jazeera how ASEAN can help resolve the crisis in Myanmar.

Dr Marty Natalegawa was Indonesia’s Foreign Minister from 2009 to 2014, including during Indonesia’s time as chair of ASEAN in 2011. Earlier, he was the director-general for ASEAN Cooperation in Indonesia’s Department of Foreign Affairs.

Al Jazeera: We know that violence has escalated in Myanmar – at least 18 peaceful protesters have died. How do you see this situation and how concerning is it?

Marty Natalegawa: It definitely constitutes a litmus test for all of us in this region.

We have always been aware of the fact that the democratisation process in Myanmar is precisely that – a process, not an event. There are bound to be ups and downs. There is a need for perseverance. The developments over the past months are of grave concern to all of us in the region. It is quite appalling to see the images that we are seeing of protesters being essentially shot at by the military. It is deeply disturbing.

The junta should not simply be asked to exercise restraint from violence. They must be told to stop it. Stop shooting at innocent civilians. We should not be asking them to refrain – that is a slippery slope. The right to peacefully demonstrate is engrained in ASEAN’s human rights declarations and our charter. Stop shooting at people and release the democratically elected leaders.

Al Jazeera: One month has passed since the coup. How do you assess ASEAN’s response to what has happened in Myanmar?

Natalegawa: To the chair’s credit, Brunei Darussalam, within a day or two after the development, the chair of ASEAN issued a statement… the fact the chair was able to quickly issue that statement is important. But it has been a month, there have been a series of very intensive diplomatic consultations, communications between relevant parties, clearly, it is ongoing. As we speak, today there will be an ASEAN informal foreign ministers meeting.

Nowadays, I use the term democratisation as being a process rather than event. Likewise, diplomatic efforts must be one that is results-driven because sometimes extremely delicate processes must be undertaken in a more low-key, informal manner – rather than one in the full glare of public expectation. I hope there is already a script around which ASEAN will rally for the management of the issue. It offers some hope, the fact that ASEAN is in recognition that this is an issue for them to address.

Within hours or days of that supposedly collective statement, there were individual member states’ statements that demonstrate the continuum or variation of views within ASEAN. Some are more open to the idea of ASEAN engagement, others say it is an internal affair and ASEAN cannot enter into the conversation.

But having this meeting at least demonstrates that ASEAN is projecting its management capacity.

Al Jazeera: Apart from convening a meeting and starting dialogue, what should ASEAN’s goals be?

Natalegawa: The way ASEAN does things, we do emphasise the importance of listening. When we speak of ASEAN, it’s not a third-party relationship. Myanmar is part of ASEAN. It would not be sufficient for ASEAN to simply be on listening mode – to hear to views of the junta – and I use the term junta purposefully and deliberately.

ASEAN must make their expectations known to the junta – that peaceful demonstrators are not to be shot at, and democratically elected leaders must be part of the solution, they must not be detained with frivolous charges.

ASEAN leaders will be listening to the representative of the junta but at the same time, ASEAN must not shy away from making their views and expectations known.

Al Jazeera: What is the line between engagement with the Myanmar military and not wanting to cause alarm for the public in Myanmar? What is that line between – listening, talking but not alarming the people?

Natalegawa: It is a perennial dilemma for any diplomatic engagement. It is not a uniquely ASEAN dilemma – having to deal with the authorities or parties that are in de facto control of the situation to decipher intent and convey expectations.

It is extremely important for ASEAN in their communication with the junta to be absolutely clear – this form of communication does not in any way, confer or suggest recognition or acceptance. It does not confer legitimacy by ASEAN.

There must be, concurrently, communication with the democratically elected leaders of Myanmar – I use that term democratically elected leaders, not opposition leaders – there is no moral equality or political between those democratically elected and those who by the strength and means they possess undermined the wishes of the people.

Al Jazeera: Whenever issues arise in our region, there are often analysts or academics who point out the failings of ASEAN. How would you respond to that criticism in light of what has happened this past month?

Natalegawa: One can always look at these things as glass half full or half empty.

One can always point to shortcoming, how it could have done better. The obituary on ASEAN has been written many times. As a diplomat serving more than 30 years, I remember many occasions when people said ASEAN is not relevant. But ASEAN has always proved its resilience.

In our case, we have been able to manage our internal issues in such a way that there is no major power interests further complicating the situation.

Cambodia in the 1980s, it was a perfect storm of major power interests – US, China and Russia. It took ASEAN at that time to bring the issue under its hold. We are not without imperfections but at the same time, one can recall important moments that ASEAN has played a role. It is not a given, it must be earned, it must be waged.

Speaking about democracy in the region at this time is almost like whistling in the dark. But one must persevere and have resilience.

Al Jazeera: You’ve said before that this time, military rule in Myanmar would be different because people have had a taste of freedom and democracy. How does that impact the situation?

Natalegawa: The domestic situation is far more complex.

When ASEAN engages with whomever is the authority in Myanmar – at the moment the junta – it does not take place in a vacuum. It will be in the full glare of publicity and attention from civil society in Myanmar. They will question that engagement with parties whom all of us consider to be not the legitimate authority. So, the domestic setting has changed.

I am so moved when I hear young people being interviewed and they say, they will make the sacrifice now to fight for democracy because they have no wish for future generations to live under military rule. They have tasted what it means to live in an environment where civil liberties are better respected. I don’t think you can wind back the clock.

Myanmar is not unlike Indonesia, in terms of the role of the armed forces in its history…and the tensions in the regions. Myanmar is extremely diverse with different ethnicities. Indonesia could provide like a template – there is not one size fits all – but our experience is relevant.

We have been able to democratically transform ourselves from military rule to where we are now. Some of the lessons and experiences have been less positive. We have plenty to share in terms of lessons.

Al Jazeera: What are your fears if a solution cannot be reached?

Natalegawa: First and foremost, in my view, we must not procrastinate. It is not a time for a reflective moment – should we engage or not engage? Such a question was answered more than a decade ago when ASEAN presented itself as part of the solution to the situation in Myanmar. We don’t need to wonder why we need to engage. A Myanmar that is economically challenged and politically unstable will impact the region’s stability and prosperity as well.

I am hopeful that there is a script to take this situation forward, and that this ASEAN plan must place the democratic wishes and will of the people of Myanmar at the forefront.

Source: Al Jazeera