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Myanmar Crisis

ASEAN 'consensus' urges Myanmar junta to end violence

Five points include 'constructive dialogue' and acceptance of special envoy

Southeast Asian leaders meet at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta on April 24. Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing is seated in the foreground at right.   © Indonesian presidential office via AP

JAKARTA -- Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders on Saturday pressed Myanmar's junta chief to end the bloodshed in his country and resolve the crisis in accordance with a five-point "consensus," in a much-anticipated summit in Jakarta.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing flew in from Myanmar on Saturday morning for the closed-door talks with presidents and prime ministers from six other ASEAN states. Thailand, the Philippines and Laos sent their foreign ministers instead.

A chairman's statement released hours after the summit lists five agreed-upon points: there shall be an "immediate cessation of violence" and restraint by all parties; all parties shall commence "constructive dialogue" toward "a peaceful solution in the interests of the people"; a special envoy of the ASEAN chair shall mediate the dialogue; ASEAN shall provide humanitarian assistance; and the special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties.

Earlier, in a conference room at the ASEAN Secretariat, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin delivered strongly worded remarks to the regional leaders, who were masked and sitting at a safe distance out of concern for COVID-19.

"The deplorable situation in Myanmar must stop immediately," Muhyiddin said, according to a transcript revealed by his government. He called on the junta to release political detainees "promptly and unconditionally."

Still, Muhyiddin was careful to include Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw, in his vision of progress. "In none of the proposals made are the Tatmadaw not part of the solution," he said.

The meeting was the first in-person gathering of the bloc's leaders since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic -- a fact Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said "reflects ASEAN's concerns over the situation in Myanmar and ASEAN's determination to help Myanmar out of the crisis."

The host, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, said after the meeting that "inclusive dialogue must start," while echoing the call to release political prisoners. "We need to appoint a special ASEAN envoy to push for dialogues involving all parties in Myanmar."

The initial word out of the summit is that Min Aung Hlaing was receptive.

Singaporean media outlet Channel News Asia quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as saying that the junta chief was "not opposed" to ASEAN playing a constructive role in Myanmar and sending a delegation. Malaysian state media Bernama quoted Muhyiddin as saying the general "responded well" and agreed with the proposal to stop the violence.

Myanmar's military TV reported that Min Aung Hlaing attended the ASEAN meeting but did not detail the Myanmar-related discussions. The report simply quoted the commander-in-chief as saying Myanmar supports sustainable regional development and aims to work closely with its neighbors to achieve the goals set in the ASEAN Charter.

It did say he explained "current political developments" to his counterparts.

The response to the summit from Myanmar's pro-democracy camp, meanwhile, was cautious.

Dr. Sasa, spokesman for the newly formed and outlawed National Unity Government led by ousted National League for Democracy lawmakers, told Nikkei Asia: "While we welcome the statements, this will be measured by the degree of their actions. Statements are easy, but if there is no action it makes it meaningless ... We have to wait and see, if there is withdrawal of forces."

Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, left, is greeted at Soekarno-Hatta Airport on the outskirts of Jakarta on April 24. (Courtesy of Indonesia's presidential office)

How the summit will impact conditions on the ground in Myanmar remains to be seen. Before the meeting, many observers doubted the chances of tangible progress, citing ASEAN's principle of noninterference in members' affairs and signs of disunity.

"This principle of noninterference is not for us to hide behind, it cannot be a reason for our inaction," Muhyiddin stressed. "The crisis that happens in one ASEAN member state is not going to solve itself without affecting other member states."

The absences of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Laotian Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh were conspicuous. Thai and Philippine officials cited surging COVID-19 cases in their countries, while Laos has not provided an explanation.

On the other hand, the junta leader's mere presence was controversial -- as a representative of a regime that has reportedly killed well over 700 people since its Feb. 1 coup toppled the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Human rights advocates questioned ASEAN's decision to invite the general. Yanghee Lee, a former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, warned in Nikkei Asia before the meeting: "It is crucial that there is no international recognition of the military regime, including by ASEAN at this weekend's summit. Instead, the international community should engage with the newly announced National Unity Government as the legitimate government of the country."

Around midday on Saturday, tens of protesters gathered near the ASEAN Secretariat. They were marching toward the building, but police moved in to block them, calling their rally a violation of COVID-19 health protocols.

Police confront activists near the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretariat building in Jakarta on April 24.   © Reuters

The demonstrators from the Jakarta-based Urban Poor Consortium said they are part of a regional coalition called Leaders and Organizers of Community Organizations in Asia, whose network also spans urban poor and working class communities in Myanmar. They call the junta chief's invitation to the summit "unnecessary and immoral ... an open support for the illegal coup using violence."

The group wants ASEAN members to cut all business ties with Myanmar companies controlled by the junta, and urges "international sanctions and a weapon embargo" on the junta, their families and businesses.

The summit capped a flurry of diplomacy over the past few months and weeks. On Friday, Widodo held bilateral talks with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, in which they discussed the Myanmar crisis.

Marsudi said the two leaders shared their hopes that the summit would produce the "best agreement" for the people of Myanmar. "The president underlines that the ASEAN leaders meeting is taking place only for the interest of the Myanmar people," she said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi arrive at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta on April 24. (Courtesy of Indonesia's presidential office)

After the ASEAN meeting, a statement posted on a Vietnamese government portal said the prime minister asked ASEAN countries to work closely with Vietnam at United Nations forums toward "finding suitable solutions for Myanmar." Hanoi is serving as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

On the sidelines of the meeting on Saturday, Vietnam's Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son reportedly met with Christine Schraner Burgener, the special envoy for the United Nations secretary-general. And they too shared concerns about Myanmar and resolved to continue international efforts to ease the crisis.

Burgener, who has been denied entry to Myanmar, was expected to try to meet with junta officials in Jakarta but it was not immediately clear if she was successful.

Despite the skepticism over the summit, some observers argued it was the best of few good options.

"Sitting down to talk with the Myanmar junta is at least [a step] to help find a humanitarian and political solution for Myanmar," said Ha Hoang Hop, an international relations expert at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

"The consensus at the meeting on Myanmar, based on the ASEAN Charter, produced a reiterated request to the Myanmar junta to immediately cease all use of violence," Hop said.

"I think Vietnam could participate in the process by taking a role such as a special envoy. But first, ASEAN and/or the U.N. should appoint a peacekeeping unit to observe the cease of all use of violence in Myanmar, and the junta should accept and allow this unit to enter Myanmar as soon as possible," he added.

Tuong Vu, a political science professor at Oregon University, told Nikkei that "the consensus can be considered a success for the ASEAN, even though leaders from three countries (including two that would be directly affected by the crisis in Myanmar) were not present."

He thinks Vietnam has an interest in participating in an envoy mission to Myanmar due to its military and business ties. He said Hanoi would prefer that outsiders like the U.S., China and the European Union stay out of the issue.

Vietnam, Tuong said, "thinks ASEAN's active involvement would help to keep outsiders out."

Additional reporting by Bobby Nugroho in Jakarta, Gwen Robinson in Bangkok and Kim Dung Tong in Ho Chi Minh City.

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