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International relations

ASEAN struggles to end Myanmar impasse as week of meetings begins

Series of key diplomatic talks also includes US, China and North Korea

The ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta: The bloc is set for a busy week of diplomatic meetings.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers met online on Monday, with the drawn-out crisis in Myanmar high on the agenda.

A meeting that was supposed to last two hours went on for five, according to Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who said the discussion was "very open" but offered no indication of tangible progress toward a resolution for Myanmar. She said Indonesia urged Myanmar and the bloc to move forward with approving a special envoy to the troubled country.

The session came just after the leader of Myanmar's military regime, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, named himself prime minister over the weekend.

ASEAN has now kicked off a weeklong series of virtual gatherings, with members huddling among themselves as well as with key partners including the U.S. and China. About 20 meetings and a news conference are scheduled through Saturday, according to Brunei, this year's ASEAN chair.

Besides Myanmar, COVID-19 and South China Sea disputes are among the top issues to be discussed, while Washington and Beijing are expected to court the 10-member bloc with pandemic support amid growing tensions between the two superpowers.

At Monday's foreign ministers meeting, "the issue that took a lot of time was the implementation of the five points of consensus [on Myanmar], especially regarding the issue of [appointing] a special envoy," according to Marsudi.

Myanmar came under military rule on Feb. 1, when the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown. The consensus reached nearly three months later called for constructive dialogue among all parties to seek a peaceful solution, the appointment of a special envoy to facilitate mediation and other measures.

But another three months have passed and little progress has been made, with no envoy in place. Some members appear reluctant to take major actions due to the bloc's long-held principle of noninterference in countries' internal affairs.

Last week, in a written reply to a parliament question, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that the implementation of the consensus has been "very slow so far," adding that his country is working within ASEAN to expedite the process.

A few potential envoy candidates have surfaced, but a shortlist is not known to have been finalized. The leader of the Myanmar regime, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, said in a speech on Sunday that his administration would work with any special envoy named by ASEAN.

But at the same time, the general took on the role of prime minister for himself. He did reiterate a pledge to hold elections, but only by 2023, suggesting he does not intend to relinquish power anytime soon.

Marsudi urged "decisive action" and stressed that continued delays in implementing the consensus "does not bring good for ASEAN." She said that if members fail to settle on an envoy at the meetings, the consensus should be returned to the bloc's leaders to decide on steps to be taken "in accordance with the ASEAN charter."

She also emphasized that "we must not ignore the suffering of the Myanmar people who need help." Since the military takeover, 940 people have been killed by the security forces while 5,444 have been arrested, charged or sentenced as of July 31, according to the rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Another key event to watch this week will be the East Asia Summit foreign ministers' meeting on Wednesday, which involves eight partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be attending five discussions this week, including the EAS meeting and U.S.-ASEAN meeting, which will also be held on Wednesday, the Department of State said.

"The secretary will reaffirm the United States' commitment to ASEAN centrality and to working with ASEAN and international partners to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and support economic recovery," it said in a statement on Saturday.

"He will reiterate that the United States stands with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and international law, including [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]."

The Joe Biden administration has been actively shoring up its position in Asia. It has dispatched key government figures to the region in recent weeks in an effort to tighten ties and check Beijing's maritime expansion, including in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

Following Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's stops in Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines last week, Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to visit the city-state as well as Vietnam this month.

But China, too, is seeking closer relationships with ASEAN, in part by offering coronavirus vaccines.

Last week, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended the opening ceremony of a conference celebrating the 30th anniversary of Beijing-ASEAN ties. "China-ASEAN relations have become a fine example of the most successful and vibrant pair of relations in the Asia-Pacific," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters.

An ASEAN-China meeting is set for Tuesday, along with the bloc's separate meetings with Japan and South Korea on the same day.

The flurry of diplomacy comes as several ASEAN states grapple with severe coronavirus outbreaks and lockdowns over a year and a half into the pandemic, including Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Last week, the International Monetary Fund downgraded its 2021 growth forecast for five major ASEAN countries by 0.6 of a point to 4.3%.

Capping the weeklong meetings will be the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on Friday. The forum is a rare international platform in which North Korea participates.

North Korea's already fragile economy has been hobbled by the pandemic and economic sanctions. Meanwhile, leader Kim Jong Un just recently accepted South Korean President Moon Jae-in's calls for re-engagement. So the international community will be watching what kind of tone Pyongyang strikes at the ARF.

Additional reporting by Ismi Damayanti.

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