Muhammad Sinatra was quoted by the South China Morning Post

  • Muhyiddin, who was in Jakarta for a brief visit, said a special meeting was necessary as the turmoil in Myanmar may jeopardise peace and stability of the region
  • He and Joko Widodo also discussed cooperation over palm oil ‘discrimination’ by Europe, the protection of Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia, and the South China Sea

By ,  5 February 2021

The leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia on Friday said they were seeking a special meeting of foreign ministers from Asean to discuss the situation in Myanmar, where an elected government was overthrown in a military coup earlier this week.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin made the announcement at a joint press conference in Jakarta, where the latter was on a one-day official visit.

“We are concerned with the political situation in Myanmar, and we hope it will be resolved legally and with respect for the Asean Charter and community vision,” said Widodo, who is more commonly known as Jokowi.

Muhyiddin said a “special” Asean meeting was necessary to address the “step backwards” in Myanmar’s democratic process. “We are concerned that this political turmoil in Myanmar will also jeopardise peace and stability of the region,” he said.

The leaders said that rule of law, good governance, respect for constitutional governance, democracy and human rights had to be respected in Myanmar, where the military on Monday wrested back power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which had decisively won the November general election.

The coup attracted widespread global condemnation, with the United Nations describing it as a “serious blow to democratic reform” and newly-minted US President Joe Biden threatening to reinstate sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation.

However, Asean neighbours such as the Philippines and Thailand described the matter as an internal affair.

Herizal Hazri, the chief executive of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia, said the proposed en bloc meeting would send a signal to the Myanmar authorities that the coup was not just a national concern but a regional one.

“The [Asean] principle of non-interference can sometimes be stretched too far. We need to put that into a regional context,” he said. “The coup d’état in Myanmar will doubtless have a bearing on the peace processes in the country and the fate of the Rohingya. The military’s actions will have an impact on how the EU and the US, among others, engage with Asean. So, this is far from just a domestic matter.”

Widodo and Muhyiddin on Friday also affirmed their commitment to eradicating “discrimination” against palm oil, of which Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s top producers.

Muhyiddin, whose government initiated legal actions against the European Union last month, said the anti-palm oil campaign in Europe misrepresented the industry.

“The anti-palm oil campaign is baseless, does not reflect the global sustainability of the palm oil industry, and contradicts the commitment of the EU and the WTO to free trade practices,” he said.

The leaders also discussed the protection of Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia, proposing a memorandum of understanding be signed and a “one-channel system” be developed, “so that human resource issues can be solved better and that workers will not fall victims to human trafficking”.

Muhyiddin’s trip to Jakarta marked his first international visit since coming to power in March last year, following a political coup that saw the previous Pakatan Harapan administration losing its parliamentary majority.

Observers said the visit underscored the importance of Indonesia in Malaysia’s foreign policy, and came at a time when bilateral relations appeared to be enmeshed in the management of issues such as border security, foreign workers and transnational haze.

“While these issues remain important, the concrete cooperation between two very close countries is found wanting,” said Muhammad Sinatra, an analyst in the Foreign Policy and Security Studies division at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS).

“Bilateral cooperation during the pandemic also shows that there is a room for improvement and creative options to be explored,” Sinatra said.

“Measures such as the establishment of a Covid-19 travel corridor between the two nations underscores the very close people-to-people ties between the Southeast Asian nations, while closer conversation on vaccine strategies should also be considered by the two especially on challenges, efficacy, side effects and distribution strategies of the vaccines,” he added.

While the palm oil matter was a hot-button issue, political economist Khor Yu Leng of Segi Enam Advisors said it remained to be seen how closely Indonesia and Malaysia could work together given the intense competition between both in the industry.

With Jakarta being the host of a council of palm oil-producing countries, and its involvement in an Asean-EU ministerial-level Joint Working Group on palm oil, policy leadership on the product has decisively shifted to Indonesia.

“Talk of cooperation wafts through these lofty circles, but this floats above the reality of cutthroat competition for export between dominant producers, Indonesia and Malaysia,” Khor said.

“Malaysia eyes its monthly export market share by tweaking its export duty relative to Indonesia’s,” she added. “Earlier, the duo were inking bilateral FTAs with big importers so that relative tariff advantages would flip annual majority market shares from one to the other.”

Khor said Malaysia’s recent problems with the US Customs and Border Patrol was “seen as a boon to Indonesia exports”, adding that Indonesia was “quite ahead of Malaysia” in trade negotiations with the EU.

Meanwhile, the South China Sea dispute was also mentioned in the joint press conference, with Muhyiddin reiterating Malaysia’s commitment to addressing issues “by using the relevant diplomatic channels”.

Muhyiddin had arrived in Jakarta on Thursday evening, although he only met Widodo the next morning. Following their meeting, the pair observed Friday prayers and had an official lunch, after which Muhyiddin returned to Malaysia, where he will undergo a mandatory Covid-19 quarantine.

Additional reporting by Resty Woro Yuniar, Reuters

This article was first appeared on the South China Morning Post on 5 February 2021

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