Asean weighs aid mission to Myanmar as members plan summit in Indonesia

Activists flash three-finger symbol of resistance outside the Asean secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, in this file picture from March 12, 2021. - AP

JAKARTA/KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters): Southeast Asian countries are considering a proposal to send a humanitarian aid mission to Myanmar as a potential first step in a long-term plan to broker a dialogue between the junta and its opponents, diplomats familiar with the discussions said.

The proposal is being considered ahead of a planned meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) leaders this month. Diplomats said it might be attended by Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who took power in a Feb 1 coup that has plunged his country into turmoil.

The Asean summit has yet to be confirmed, although Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on his Facebook account on Friday that it would take place on April 24 and he would fly to Indonesia's capital for the event.

Myanmar's junta did not respond to a request for comment.

A national unity government in Myanmar, announced on Friday (April 16) by members of the civilian administration ousted by the junta, said it should handle any aid from Asean and Min Aung Hlaing should not be allowed to take part in the summit.

Some regional foreign ministers and officials have held talks with Myanmar's ousted lawmakers, who call themselves the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), but they have not been invited to the meeting.

Myanmar has been in violent disarray since the junta overthrew the government led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi.

People have been taking to the streets day after day to demand the restoration of democracy, defying crackdowns by the security forces in which more than 700 people have been killed, according to a monitoring group.

Asean countries -- worried by the bloodshed in a country that faces economic collapse, mass civil disobedience and the resurgence of conflict between the military and ethnic groups -- have stepped up diplomatic efforts since the coup.

Myanmar is a member of the 10-member Asean and the bloc's mediation could be key to resolving the crisis.

Proposals being considered for the summit included a humanitarian aid mission that could be a prelude to talks between the Myanmar military and the ousted civilian government, two regional diplomats and a source close to the Malaysian government said.

However, there is little likelihood of any dialogue soon between the two sides. The military government has accused the CRPH of treason, which is punishable by death, while the ousted lawmakers have called the junta leader a "murderer in chief".

The Asean proposal would start with a pause in hostilities and be followed by the delivery of aid, said Rizal Sukma, the executive director of the Jakarta-based Centre for International and Strategic Studies, who is among a team helping to generate policy ideas ahead of the summit.

This might eventually create a "space for dialogue" between the junta and its opponents, he said.

"For this third element, it really requires the Tatmadaw to release political prisoners," said Sukma, referring to the military by its Burmese name.

Four members of Asean -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines -- have called for the release of Suu Kyi, who has been in detention since the coup, but the group itself has refrained from that step.

Two diplomats said the idea of appointing a special envoy was also being considered, with either the Asean secretary-general or a senior retired diplomat or military figure taking the job. The envoy would negotiate with the military regime and members of the ousted government, diplomats and analysts said.

The diplomats said Min Aung Hlaing has been sounded out about attending the summit and could go to Jakarta, although they stressed nothing had been finalised.

A spokesman for the CRPH said on Friday "it would be a huge insult to the brave people of Myanmar to invite the murderer in chief".

"Asean should immediately engage with the national unity government to end the violence and restore democracy in Myanmar," said Dr Sasa, who goes by only one name. Aid should not be channelled through the military because it would be stolen, he said.

Sukma, a former Indonesian diplomat, said it was important for Min Aung Hlaing to attend the summit.

"If the main objective of the Asean meeting is to stop the killing by the Tatmadaw, then that message is best delivered directly to MAH," he said, using the junta leader's initials.

"Also, if the summit wants to propose a humanitarian pause, then it must be delivered to the Tatmadaw."

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Myanmar , Asean , Indonesia , aid , summit , Jakarta


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