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Myanmar Crisis

Malaysia envoy's meeting with Myanmar junta sparks uproar

Foreign ministry rejects criticism that move lends regime legitimacy

Zahairi Baharim, Malaysia's ambassador to Myanmar, presents his credentials in 2018.   © AP

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's government is under fire from the opposition and outside observers after its envoy to Myanmar met with a minister from the military junta in Naypyitaw, forcing an explanation from the Foreign Ministry.

Ambassador Zahairi Baharim was photographed at a meeting with Electricity and Energy Minister Aung Than Oo on Wednesday in the violence-ridden country's administrative capital.

Clips of Zahairi's meeting were aired on a Myanmar state TV channel. The images were then widely shared on social media on Thursday. Activist Ro Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, tweeted the pictures and asked whether the meeting meant that Malaysia recognizes the junta "terrorists as a legitimate" government.

This marks the first known case of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations member's ambassador making official contact with the junta since the Feb. 1 coup, though Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met with her Myanmar counterpart in Bangkok in late February to push for dialogue. Military attaches from Thailand, Laos and Vietnam attended Myanmar's military parade on March 27, apparently without sitting down for formal meetings.

With a flurry of diplomacy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei together have been pushing to restore peace and stability in Myanmar using the ASEAN platform, calling for an emergency summit. Recent meetings between Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his counterparts in the bloc have stressed the importance of restoring democracy in Myanmar.

The Hope Pact, the opposition coalition in Malaysia led by Anwar Ibrahim, said the envoy's meeting created confusion over the Malaysian government's true stance on the Myanmar issue.

"The meeting between the ambassador and the junta -- given the stand of Malaysia on political prisoners and ASEAN emergency meeting has not changed -- creates a perception that Malaysia has actually endorsed the junta government," the coalition said in a statement.

The coalition said "it doesn't help to restore democracy in Myanmar" and demanded the Foreign Ministry explain.

The ministry presented its side of the story Thursday evening, issuing a statement defending the meeting. It said the ambassador went only to inform Myanmar that Malaysian state energy company Petroliam Nasional (Petronas) would temporarily suspend upstream operations at its Yetagun gas project.

"The meeting does not construe a recognition or otherwise of the State Administration Council (SAC)," it said, using the junta's formal name.

The ministry added that Malaysia remains committed to its calls for an immediate cessation of violence and immediate release of political prisoners, as well as dialogue for a peaceful political transition.

Earlier, however, political analyst Bridget Welsh tweeted that Zahairi's visit provided legitimacy to the junta despite the deaths of around 600 civilians since the takeover.

"This endorsement of the government engaged in crimes against humanity conflicts with other statements by Malaysia leaders and speaks to a worrying shift in ASEAN," she said.

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