Malaysia has been one of the most forthright Asean member states when it comes to Myanmar and the actions of the junta since the February 2021 coup. However, a confluence of internal and external factors could see changes in both Malaysia’s tone and approach.
Much depends on the future of caretaker foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah. As a self-professed “progressive” politician with a history of speaking up on humanitarian and democratic causes, Saifuddin isn’t a typical Malaysian party leader or senior politician who often make up the ministerial ranks.
His outspokenness on developments in Myanmar predates his appointment as foreign minister, which explains the determination to hold the junta accountable on its commitments to progress before allowing it back into the Asean fold and for the regional organisation to engage formally with the NUG, the broad coalition of anti-junta stakeholders, considered by some the legitimate government in exile. He was also the first Asean foreign minister to meet with the NUG’s Zin Mar Aung in May 2022.
With Parliament dissolved from Oct 10, the next general election, which must be held in 60 days, could result in a new foreign minister. Saifuddin’s future – both in the Cabinet and as an MP – is far from assured. His party, Bersatu, has a contentious relationship with Umno, the dominant party in the ruling coalition, and was barely held together by the fraying thread of necessity. Both parties will be going for the jugular in the elections. The extent of his influence in Bersatu itself is in question.
It is far from clear if Malaysia will continue its vigorous human rights-based approach on Myanmar and maintain the advocacy of and contact with the NUG with the next foreign minister. Indications are that a future ruling coalition could mirror the current one, shaped by conservative and hard-line policies.
It is hard to imagine Saifuddin’s successor approaching the issue in a similar manner.
Additionally, Malaysia seems to be the lone voice in Asean when it comes to holding Myanmar to account. His peers from Singapore and Indonesia have been more circumspect in their statements and actions. The Philippines, now under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, could be reversing tact and seeking to re-engage the junta.
While Saifuddin’s approach on Myanmar might not be popular within his peers or the bureaucracy, he has worked hard to institutionalise it, both with his Cabinet colleagues and Wisma Putra itself.
Caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob himself continued to raise Myanmar prominently in his bilateral meetings with heads of governments, including at the recent United Nations General Assembly, where he called out the failure of the five-point consensus in its current form, the lack of consequences for the junta, and the role of the Security Council’s permanent-5 in using the veto to protect the junta from further global sanction.
Malaysia has also taken a harsher – indeed more repressive – approach towards refugees and asylum seekers within its borders. They are overwhelmingly from Myanmar, and most are Rohingya from Rakhine state. It is in Malaysia’s interest to push for a political solution in the country, creating the conditions that would allow repatriations to continue.
Last, but not least, there is a degree of consistency in Malaysia’s approach. During the early months of the coup, former foreign minister (now caretaker defence minister) Hishammuddin Hussein was clear about the need for the junta to avoid violence, release political prisoners and work towards political reconciliation.
This has long formed the basis of Malaysia’s position on the path that Myanmar needs to take and will likely shape any decision to allow for political representation back at the Asean Summit.
Whether it intended to or not, Malaysia has created a position for itself as one of the Asean member states that have taken a leadership role in the crisis. This has been acknowledged by various international civil society organisations, including the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, and indeed the NUG itself.
It would be hard to move away from this position, although Malaysia might choose to be less proactive. A drastic reversal would not do the country’s reputation any favour.
This article was also published in Free Malaysia Today on 13 October 2022.