SINGAPORE/JAKARTA -- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Tuesday called for all parties in Myanmar to "exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility" as the crisis in the country following the Feb. 1 military coup worsens.
The statement was delivered by this year's ASEAN chair, Brunei, after an informal online meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers. This was the first gathering among ministers since the coup. More than 20 protesters have been killed and hundreds reportedly arrested in the military's crackdown on the protests. A court on Monday filed additional charges against ousted de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, blocking her comeback path.
ASEAN "expressed our concern on the situation in Myanmar and called on all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility," the statement said. "We also called on all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution, through constructive dialogue, and practical reconciliation in the interests of the people and their livelihood.
"In this regard, we expressed ASEAN’s readiness to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner," it added.
ASEAN has a principle of non-interference, which was seen as a hurdle for the member states to hold a ministerial meeting on the matter. But some members such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore expressed concerns after the coup.
Speaking after the meeting, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said democracy must be restored in Myanmar.
"Indonesia emphasized that the interests of the people of Myanmar must be respected. Democracy respects freedom of opinion, communication and dialogue," she said. "Indonesia urges all parties to start dialogue and communication as well as conducive conditions that must be created, including releasing political prisoners."
"Internal communication between stakeholders in Myanmar is always the best option, but Indonesia believes ASEAN is also ready to facilitate the dialogue if asked," Marsudi said.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein made a similar statement, and called for the release of Suu Kyi.
"We remain with conviction that the solution to the political deadlock in Myanmar is a domestic-led process," he said. "It is crucial for Myanmar to strive for a solution to the political crisis in a way that upholds the will and aspiration of the people of Myanmar."
"Malaysia will support any effort to reconcile the differences among Myanmar's leaders," he added. "Malaysia calls for the prompt and unconditional release of detained political leaders in Myanmar, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Win Myint and their associates."
The foreign ministers from Singapore and the Philippines also urged an immediate release of Suu Kyi during the meeting.
Thailand, which had been quiet on the issue, on Monday also raised fears about the situation on its doorstep.
"Thailand has been following developments in Myanmar with concern," the kingdom's foreign ministry said in a statement. "We hope all sides in Myanmar will exercise utmost restraint and engage in dialogue in order to achieve peaceful resolution of the situation and the return to normalcy for the interests of the Myanmar people."
ASEAN is coming increasingly under pressure to cope with the issue, especially with countries such as the U.S. imposing economic sanctions. Those fears risk affecting investment sentiment toward the region as a whole.
In an interview with the BBC, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was negative on the possibility of imposing sanctions on Myanmar.
"If you do impose sanctions, who will hurt? It will not be the military, or the Generals who will hurt. It will be the Myanmar population who will hurt. It will deprive them of food, medicine, essentials,and opportunities for education. How does that make things better?" he said.
Indonesia, ASEAN's biggest economy, played a key role in arranging the meeting. President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin met on Feb 5, where they agreed to call a special Myanmar meeting.
Indonesia's Marsudi met her Myanmar counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin in Bangkok on Feb 24, paving a way to hold a regional meeting. She also has held calls with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the foreign ministers of Japan, India and China.
Additional reporting by Ismi Damayanti in Jakarta