Asean leaders urge Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing to end violence and release political prisoners

Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (L) gestures as he is welcomed upon his arrival ahead of the ASEAN leaders' summit, at the Soekarno Hatta International airport in Tangerang, on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, April 24, 2021.
PHOTO: Reuters

Myanmar’s coup leader Min Aung Hlaing on Saturday met leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Jakarta for crisis talks, where the junta chief was urged to immediately halt a bloody post-coup crackdown on protesters and to release detained civilian leaders. 

The special meeting – attended by the senior general and six leaders of the 10-nation bloc – ended after three hours. Thailand, Laos and the Philippines were represented by their foreign ministers. The delegations of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia and Vietnam were led by their respective heads of government. 

Brunei, the current Asean chair, released a statement late on Saturday outlining a “five-point consensus” agreed upon by the nine Asean leaders on ways to de-escalate tensions between the military and civilian leaders that led to the coup.

This included the need for an “immediate cessation of violence”, constructive dialogue among all parties concerned and the provision of humanitarian assistance by Asean to Myanmar.

The leaders also agreed to the appointment of a special envoy to help mediate in the crisis, and for the envoy and her or his delegation to have access to “all parties concerned” in Myanmar.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, who first proposed the special meeting in March, said the current situation in Myanmar was “unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue.”

“Violence must be stopped and democracy, stability, and peace in Myanmar must be soon restored. The interest of Myanmar people must always be a priority,” he told reporters after the meeting.

Myanmar’s junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. PHOTO: Reuters

During the meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the “deplorable situation” in Myanmar needed to end immediately. “All parties must urgently restraint from any provocations and actions that will perpetuate violence and unrest,” he said.

Muhyiddin called for the “unconditional and prompt” release of civilian leaders detained since the February 1 coup. 

He also urged the junta to allow the Asean secretary general Lim Jock Hoi and representatives of Brunei access to Myanmar and “all the parties concerned”. 

“In none of the proposals made are the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] not part of the solution,” he said. “We realise that the success of Asean’s efforts on Myanmar very much depends on the willingness of the Tatmadaw to cooperate.” 

Regarding Asean’s rare decision to discuss a member state’s domestic politics, Muhyiddin said: “[Asean’s] principle of non-interference is not for us to hide behind, it cannot be a reason for our inaction. The crisis that happens in one Asean member state is not going to solve itself without affecting other member states.”

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking to reporters after the meeting, said Min Aung Hlaing addressed the leaders after they had voiced theirs views on the crisis.

“He said he heard us, he would take the points in which he considered helpful, that he was not opposed to Asean playing a constructive role, or an Asean delegation visit, or humanitarian assistance, and that they would move forward and engage with Asean in a constructive way,” CNA quoted Lee as saying.

Senior diplomats from around the world, including Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, have said they hoped the Asean-led effort to defuse the crisis produces results.

Wang Yi this week told counterparts from Brunei and Thailand – the current and next chairs of Asean – that Beijing expected the meeting to “make a ‘soft landing’ of the situation in Myanmar”, the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday.

Although the US and the European Union have imposed sanctions against Min Aung Hlaing, his lieutenants and military-backed businesses since the coup, neither Asean nor China has shown interest in following suit, instead claiming engagement will be vital to deal with the post-coup situation.

Since the coup, Asean has repeatedly said there should be “no further violence” and that “parties concerned … seek a peaceful solution, through constructive dialogue and practical reconciliation”. The leaders assembled at Saturday’s meeting were expected to reiterate the bloc’s previous message to Min Aung Hlaing.

Before the talks in the early afternoon at the Asean building in South Jakarta, dozens of people began marching to the site to protest Min Aung Hlaing’s presence. Reports said the demonstration was halted by police, who cited Covid-19 restrictions for barring the event. 

Activists have accused Asean of legitimising the senior general’s authority by inviting him to Jakarta. Representatives of the parallel National Unity Government (NUG), which claims to be the rightful government of Myanmar, said the meeting should have been held with one of their representatives at the table.

The decisions by the leaders of Thailand, Laos and the Philippines to skip the meeting have also raised questions about Asean’s ability to take united action to de-escalate the crisis. 

Since the coup, more than 700 unarmed protesters have been killed and members of the deposed National League of Democracy (NLD) – including its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and president Win Myint – have remained in military custody. 

Commentators this week offered a range of views about the likely outcome of the meeting. 

Charles Santiago, a Malaysian opposition lawmaker and human rights advocate, on Friday said Asean risked legitimising Min Aung Hlaing’s junta if it engaged with him exclusively. 

“Let’s be clear about what message this sends to the people of protesting in the streets for a return to democracy,” Santiago said in a statement on behalf of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) group. 

“Asean can and should devise a creative solution to ensure it also gives the National Unity Government a seat at the table. They could structure the meeting so that member states engage with the junta in one part of the meeting and then engage with the NUG in another.”

In a commentary for the South China Morning Post, the veteran Indonesian diplomatic observer Rene L Pattiradjawane and former diplomat Ple Priatna took a different position.

“What Asean should not do at the meeting is take sides, either by according legitimacy to the Tatmadaw or by recognising the NUG,” they wrote. “Doing so will not achieve anything – the Myanmar people have made clear that they will not accept the establishment of a new military-led order while the Tatmadaw have also shown they will not give up their absolute power.

“Calls for the junta to hand back power to Aung San Suu Kyi ’s National League for Democracy which won last year’s election will fall on deaf ears, even if Asean freezes Myanmar’s membership of the bloc.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.