The leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia jointly called on Friday for a special meeting of Southeast Asian nations to discuss this week’s military coup in Myanmar, saying this was a matter of concern for the region.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said they had instructed their foreign ministers to speak with the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations about convening a meeting of the bloc’s top diplomats. Their joint statement was the strongest to date on the situation in Myanmar from top government leaders of ASEAN states.
“We are concerned about political developments in Myanmar and we hope that political differences can be resolved in accordance with applicable laws,” the two leaders said after they held talks in Jakarta, where Muhyiddin was making his first trip as PM since his unelected government came to power nearly a year ago.
“We have asked the two Foreign Ministers to speak with the chair of ASEAN to discuss the possibility of convening a special meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers on the developments in Myanmar.”
Brunei this year holds the chair of the 10-member regional bloc, which includes Myanmar.
Muhyiddin said that the situation in Myanmar warranted a special ASEAN meeting.
“In this regard, I strongly agree with the proposal that the two Foreign Ministers be given the mandate to seek an agreement so that a special ASEAN meeting is held to discuss this matter in more depth,” the Malaysian PM said during a post-meeting press conference alongside Jokowi.
On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s generals seized power from the elected government, and arrested civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others. The military then declared a one-year state of emergency to deal with allegations of voting fraud tied to the general election, which Suu Kyi’s party handily won in November.
The call for a special ASEAN meeting was unusual because one of ASEAN’s founding principles is non-interference in the domestic affairs of the bloc’s member-states.
Still, Muhyiddin, who was on a 24-hour visit to Indonesia, plainly stated on Friday that the democratic process in Myanmar had regressed and this could affect the whole of Southeast Asia.
His government has been ruling Malaysia under a national state of emergency declared last month over the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Like Indonesia, Malaysia also takes seriously the current political situation in Myanmar, which is a step backwards in the democratic process in that country,” Muhyiddin said in a statement he read out at the press conference.
“It is feared that political unrest in Myanmar could affect peace and stability in the region.”
Muhyiddin didn’t elaborate on how the Myanmar situation would affect Southeast Asia, but political analysts and an association of ASEAN MPs said earlier this week that the coup could lead to another influx of refugees from the country’s persecuted Rohingya community.
Political disputes in a country should be solved through legal means and not by force, Jokowi said for his part.
“It is important that we respect the principles enshrined in the ASEAN charter, including the rule of law, good governance, democracy and human rights, and constitutional government,” Jokowi said.
Malaysia, Indonesia ‘have influential standing’ in ASEAN
Political analysts in the region welcomed the joint effort by Malaysia and Indonesia on Myanmar.
Cecep Hidayat, a Malaysia expert at the University of Indonesia, said Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur could play an active role as regional leaders on the issue.
“If the Myanmar issue is not handled properly, it will have a huge impact on the region,” Cecep told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“Doing nothing could undermine international confidence in ASEAN resulting from an inability to create regional peace.”
It is particularly important that Malaysia and Indonesia step up, because several ASEAN member countries had described the Myanmar coup as “an internal matter,” said Azmi Hassan, a political analyst in Malaysia.
He indicated that those nations that refrained from commenting were worried about potential fallout in their relations with Beijing.
“The problem is that what’s happening for the last few days is that a number of ASEAN members are with China by saying that this is an internal matter,” Azmi told BenarNews.
“So, I think it is very important for Malaysia and Indonesia, which have very influential standing in ASEAN itself to pursue, or I would say, force, Brunei as the chairman to call a special meeting regarding Myanmar.”
Cambodia, Thailand, and, initially, the Philippines – all three of whom have a history of coups – took the “internal affairs” line.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore expressed serious concern about the situation in Myanmar, and the sultanate of Brunei urged a return to normalcy “in accordance with the will and interests” of Myanmar’s people.
Manila later changed its tune and also expressed worries about the military coup in Myanmar.
Azmi also said that the plight of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya minority in Rakhine state should be the driving force in addressing the backsliding of democracy in Myanmar.
“Malaysia and Indonesia are the target destination [for Rohingya] if things get worse in Rakhine which [they] probably will, since communication to the outside world from Myanmar is at a bare minimum,” he said.
Meanwhile, Singaporean and Thai representatives on the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) joined their Malaysian and Indonesian counterparts on Friday in calling the military coup in Myanmar a “transfer of power to the military.”
“We have been closely following events in Myanmar which have led to the declaration of emergency and transfer of power to the military after the general election on 8 November, 2020,” the four countries’ AICHR representatives said in a joint statement.
They said they were “extremely concerned” and urged Myanmar to legally settle any political disputes there.
“We look forward to a democratic and peaceful outcome that is in accordance with the will and interests of the people in Myanmar,” their statement said.
Palm oil ‘discrimination’
Apart from Myanmar, Jokowi and Muhyiddin also discussed bilateral areas of concern.
They agreed that their countries would jointly fight what they called “negative campaigns” against palm oil in Europe and other countries.
Indonesia and Malaysia together supply about 85 percent of the world’s palm oil, and plantations in both countries have come under scrutiny for alleged labor violations.
Muhyiddin singled out the European Union, Australia, and Oceania countries for “discrimination” against palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia.
“This anti-palm oil campaign is unfounded and does not reflect the sustainability of the world palm industry and contradicts the EU's commitment to the WTO on free trade practices,” he said, referring to the World Trade Organization.
Malaysia would continue to work with Indonesia on the issue and to empower the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries, the Malaysian leader said.
“This is to ensure that we can protect the palm oil industry, especially smallholders who depend entirely on the palm oil industry in Malaysia and Indonesia,” Muhyiddin said.
Jokowi said a joint campaign with Malaysia would be more effective.
“Indonesia continues to fight against discrimination against palm oil and this endeavor will yield better outcomes if done together.”
The Malaysian Palm Oil Association has regularly blamed palm oil’s competitors, such as canola and rapeseed manufacturers, and their “financial might,” for “incessant attacks on the industry, despite the fact that palm oil plantations are far more sustainably managed today.”
Jokowi also said he was seeking a new agreement to protect Indonesian workers in Malaysia.
Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians work in the neighboring country, with many entering illegally and working as laborers.
“The two countries also need to build a one-channel system so that labor recruitment can be done better to prevent workers from becoming victims of human trafficking,” Jokowi said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.