Thomas Daniel was quoted in the Asia Times

Malaysian FM Saifuddin Abdullah has been anti-junta NUG’s strongest advocate in ASEAN and at UN but may soon lose his job

by David Hutt, 12 October 2022

Protesters hold posters in support of the National Unity Government (NUG) during a demonstration against the military coup on ‘Global Myanmar Spring Revolution Day’ in Taunggyi, Shan state, on May 2, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stringer

Myanmar’s shadow government could lose one of its closest supporters in Southeast Asia after Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the Malaysian prime minister, announced the dissolution of parliament on Monday, setting up a snap general election.

In recent months Saifuddin Abdullah, Malaysia’s foreign minister, has emerged as the loudest advocate within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc to open channels to the National Unity Government (NUG).

Myanmar’s shadow administration now claims to control vast swathes of the nation’s territory as it wages a “people’s war” against a military junta that seized power in a February 2021, coup but has so far struggled to gain proper international recognition.

But Saifuddin’s position is at risk as his party, Bersatu, is expected to lose seats and potentially its place in a coalition government at the upcoming general election, which must take place before December 9. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the main coalition partner which is expected to gain seats, could form the next government without Bersatu’s seats.

If Saifuddin loses his job, it could turn Malaysia’s enthusiasm for dialogue with the NUG and its hectoring of ASEAN to take stronger measures against the junta, although analysts point out that criticism of the junta now pervades Malaysian politics.

Malaysia, as well as neighboring Muslim majority Indonesia, has been outspoken against the Myanmar military since “clearance operation” in 2017 drove over 700,000 Muslim Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have since made their way to more prosperous Malaysia and Indonesia, where they often reside as de facto refugees. The international community has described Buddhist majority Myanmar’s persecution of the Muslim Rohingya as possible “genocide”, opening a religious rift of sorts inside ASEAN.

Myanmar’s 2021 coup, which saw military generals seize power from an elected government led by one-time pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who now languishes in prison on trumped-up charges, is dividing the bloc on certain democratic versus authoritarian lines.

In May, Saifuddin became the first foreign minister of a Southeast Asian country to admit to holding talks with Myanmar’s shadow government. He has also strongly advocated for ASEAN to take a much stiffer policy on the military junta in Naypyidaw, including dialogue with the NUG and a rewriting of the “Five-Point Consensus”, a compromise ASEAN agreed with the junta in mid-2021 that the Malaysian government says is not being honored.

“Between now and the ASEAN summit in November, ASEAN must seriously review if the Five-Point Consensus is still relevant, and if it should be replaced with something better,” he said last month, referring to the regional bloc’s upcoming congress.

According to Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert with Malaysia’s Nottingham University, Saifuddin has been “the architect and leader of the pro-NUG position” in Malaysia.

In the first months after the February 2021 coup, the Malaysian government played a junior role among its ASEAN partners in trying to find a solution to the conflict. However, this year it has become far more vocal than its neighbors in criticizing the junta.

In May, Saifuddin became the first official from a Southeast Asian government to publicly admit to meeting with the NUG, which he did that month in New York during talks with the shadow government’s foreign minister, Zin Mar Aung.

In August, he called for the NUG and the National Unity Consultative Council, a wider grouping of anti-junta forces, to be included in ASEAN discussions.

The following month, he met more NUG officials on another visit to New York, including its deputy foreign minister, Moe Zaw Oo, and Aung Kyi Nyunt, chairperson of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the NUG’s parliamentary body.

Saifuddin’s future within the cabinet and as a member of parliament is far from assured, notes Thomas Daniel, a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, a Malaysian think tank.

“He faces a challenge both in defending his current constituency in the state of Pahang and in ensuring he remains favored by the leadership of Bersatu, the political party he defected to in March 2020,” Daniel added.

Although UMNO and Bersatu agreed to a coalition deal under the Perikatan Nasional umbrella, their relationship is less than harmonious. UMNO, which is running high in opinion polls, will be looking to take seats from its coalition partner, while Bersatu’s goal will be to keep enough seats so that UMNO will have to include it in a new coalition government.

“The bulk of Malaysia’s more proactive stances and statements on Myanmar have come from Saifuddin. It will be hard to imagine any other foreign minister, especially someone more conservative, approaching the issue in a similar manner,” said Daniel.

That doesn’t mean Malaysia will volte-face on its current policy on the Myanmar crisis, however. According to academic Welsh, the broader Malaysian foreign policy community supports a stronger position against the junta, so it would be hard for it to “completely move away from the pro-NUG position as the junta has proven to be so vicious and incompetent.”

Prime Minister Ismail, a member of UMNO, has frequently made the same criticisms of Myanmar’s junta as Saifuddin. Speaking last month at the United Nations General Assembly, he rebuked the UN’s five-member Security Council for not taking “any serious action” to deal with the situation in Myanmar, describing the international response as “very saddening.”

“Malaysia is disappointed that there is no meaningful progress in the implementation of the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus, especially by the Myanmar junta. In its current form, the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus cannot continue any longer,” Ismail asserted.

Malaysia’s approach has largely been lauded by the Western international community, which brings with it certain expectations not to change that approach, said Daniel. “It will be hard for Malaysia to completely reverse its position, but we could see a more muted Malaysia if Saifuddin is no longer foreign minister,” he added.

However, some commentators reckon that Malaysia’s stance on Myanmar could become even stronger if UMNO wins and has a strong mandate.

In that event, Kuala Lumpur “could become even more vocal in denouncing the Myanmar junta’s abuses, regardless of who’s going to be appointed as the new foreign minister,” said Andrea Passeri, a senior lecturer at the University of Malaya’s Department of International and Strategic Studies.

But all this leads to the question of whether the Malaysian government, even if Saifuddin keeps his job, can have any meaningful impact on what happens in Myanmar, as well as on ASEAN’s response to the crisis.

Cambodia, the current chair of the ASEAN bloc, announced earlier this month that junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will not be invited to the regional bloc’s upcoming summit next month. This is consistent with the coup-maker general’s exclusion from last year’s summit in Brunei.

Indonesia, next year’s ASEAN chair, may take a far tougher stance on Myanmar’s junta, yet few analysts think the bloc will significantly depart from its current middling position.

“I don’t think any ASEAN states are really going to take such a provocative step as recognizing the NUG or letting them set up an office in their country, the way Australia has and the US might at some point,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

This article was first published in the Asia Times, 12 October 2022.

- Advertisement -