Southeast Asian leaders urge Burmese coup junta chief to end violence

ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has momentarily withdrawn its commitment to non-interference in the affairs of its ten members to seek solutions to the serious situation in Myanmar, the former Burma. Leaders and representatives of the group’s nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Brunei and Myanmar) have urged this Saturday in a meeting in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, the head of the Burmese military junta , Min Aung Hlaing – present at the meeting -, to put an end to the violence with which the security forces of his country repress the opposition to the coup he led on February 1. At least 745 civilians have died since then, while the UN warns that millions of people are at risk of starvation due to the pressing economic crisis.

The host of the meeting, the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo -Jokowi-, assured that the attendees reached a consensus on five points: the immediate end of the violence; the beginning of the dialogue with all the parties involved; the creation of a special envoy from ASEAN to mediate the dialogue; the provision of humanitarian aid by ASEAN; and the visit of a delegation from the group to Myanmar. It did not include, as anticipated, the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of the government deposed by the military and under arrest. At least 3,371 people, including politicians and activists, have been detained since the coup, according to the Myanmar Association for the Protection of Political Prisoners.

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At a press conference, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong relayed what nevertheless appears to be a lukewarm commitment on the part of the Burmese Army commander in chief. “He has listened to us, has assured that he will take into account the points that he considers helpful, and is not opposed to ASEAN playing a constructive role in the crisis or a visit by a delegation from the group.” Days ago the coup junta rejected the visit of the UN special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, who is also in Jakarta this weekend to hold meetings on the margins of the official summit.

This is the first time that Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the Burmese junta, has met with foreign leaders since he carried out the coup on February 1, interrupting ten years of democratic transition. It also marks the first physical meeting of ASEAN since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, although it has been attended by the absence of the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand and Laos. The first two countries, which sent their respective foreign ministers, justified the decision in the growing contagion of covid-19 among their populations.

Although optimistic about the course of the talks, Singaporean Lee warned that there is still a long way to go. “It is one thing to say that you will stop the violence and another is to do it,” he said. His Malaysian counterpart, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, was more restrictive: “ASEAN’s principle of non-interference cannot be an excuse for inaction. The crisis that is occurring in one of our members is not going to resolve itself without affecting the rest of us, ”he emphasized.

The meeting, which began at 1:30 p.m. local time (8:30 a.m. in mainland Spain), was held behind closed doors at the premises of the ASEAN secretariat in the Indonesian capital. Shortly before, the person responsible for the coup in the former Burma had landed in Jakarta, dressed in a suit and not a military uniform, received by the Indonesian authorities with the rank of head of the Myanmar Army and not as head of state . The distinction supposes a concession to the critics with the invitation to the general, who consider it a legitimization of the military regime. A group carrying protest banners against the riot gathered in the vicinity of the building where the meeting took place. Demonstrations also took place the day before in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, after a few days of calm. Since February, thousands of people have protested daily in different parts of the country against the military regime.

While the talks have been more fruitful than expected, given the disparities between ASEAN members – with Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia being more inclined to act, while countries with authoritarian regimes such as Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam have shown most reluctant – it remains to be seen what impact they will have on the future of the situation in Myanmar. For some, the meeting takes place late and does not include a key party, the self-declared Burmese civilian government, made up of deputies from the Suu Kyi National League for Democracy (NLD), among others. The NLD won last November’s elections, considered fraudulent by the military. That was his pretext for the coup.

“Why does ASEAN recognize an illegal organization and not invite a government that is consistent with the organization’s principles? Why does ASEAN commit the worst form of meddling by deliberately ignoring the election results? ”Debbie Stothard, Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said this week during a videoconference organized by the group of ASEAN deputies for human rights.

In a statement, Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), also condemned the invitation to Min Aung Hlaing. “Someone who is subject to international sanctions for his role in the atrocities committed against protesters should not be welcomed at an intergovernmental meeting to solve a crisis that he has created,” he stresses.

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