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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar junta chief to attend ASEAN summit on Saturday: spokesman

Death toll over 700 spurs calls for action despite bloc's noninterference policy

Protesters in Yangon hold signs on April 20, criticizing the expected participation of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in the ASEAN summit. The bloc faces heavy international pressure to resolve the crisis.   © AP

SINGAPORE -- The leader of Myanmar's junta is set to attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit scheduled for Saturday in Jakarta, a spokesperson for the junta told Nikkei Asia on Wednesday.

Asked whether Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing will be going to the Indonesian capital, military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun told Nikkei Asia that "he will definitely go."

Earlier the same day, this year's ASEAN chair Brunei made the first official announcement of the leaders summit on Twitter, as the bloc faces intense international pressure to resolve the Myanmar crisis.

Brunei's statement said the 10-member bloc "will be holding the ASEAN Leaders Meeting in Jakarta ... which is set to be held on Saturday, 24th April 2021," without mentioning Myanmar directly. It added that Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah will be attending.

The summit -- the first since the Feb. 1 coup and the ensuing violence that has left over 700 citizens dead -- has been in the works for weeks. But as the bloc adheres to a policy of noninterference in members' internal affairs, the odds of tangible progress are uncertain.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin will also attend, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein confirmed on Tuesday, adding that he will accompany him. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said earlier that he will be going to Jakarta for the summit.

Meanwhile, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Tuesday confirmed he will skip the meeting. Instead, the country will send Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai, who is also foreign minister.

Some countries have yet to announce whether their top leaders will participate. The Thai prime minister hinted that some may dispatch their foreign ministers instead.

Myanmar's Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing presides over a military parade in Naypyitaw on March 27.   © Reuters

The alarming death toll has spurred repeated calls for action. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an activist group, 738 people have been killed since the coup as of Monday.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday told a Security Council meeting: "ASEAN's role is more crucial than ever as the region faces an urgent crisis in Myanmar."

He went on to say that "the situation requires a robust international response grounded on a unified regional effort," stressing, "I urge regional actors to leverage their influence to prevent further deterioration and, ultimately, find a peaceful way out of this catastrophe."

But ASEAN's principle of noninterference means the members are likely to tread carefully, seeking to ease the violence and work toward a peaceful resolution by creating an environment that is conducive to dialogue. And within ASEAN, there is still a lack of unity, with some members being relatively reluctant to wade into the Myanmar issue.

It is unclear whether the summit will focus solely on Myanmar. When the bloc's foreign ministers held informal virtual talks on March 2, the crisis was only one item on an agenda that also covered topics such as COVID-19.

That meeting produced a chairman's statement calling for "all parties [in Myanmar] to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility." Hundreds have been killed since.

The leaders summit was first proposed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo in mid-March. Some other members such as Malaysia and Singapore backed the idea, and these countries have been actively working to arrange the meeting.

While the summit will be a significant step, however, it has already stirred debate.

Myanmar's pro-democracy politicians, who formed a National Unity Government last week, have called on ASEAN to reject Min Aung Hlaing and to invite them instead.

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