South-East Asian leaders discuss Myanmar crisis with junta chief


General view of the Asean leaders' meeting at the the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) secretariat building in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 24, 2021. Courtesy of Agus Suparto/Indonesian Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters

* Junta leader to address ASEAN summit * Opposition unity government seeks end to violence

JAKARTA, April 24 (Reuters): South-East Asian leaders began a crisis meeting on Myanmar on Saturday aiming to persuade Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who led the military takeover that sparked turmoil in his country, to forge a path to end the violence.

The gathering of leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) in Jakarta is the first coordinated international effort to ease the crisis in Myanmar, an impoverished country that neighbours China, India and Thailand. Myanmar is part of the 10-nation Asean.

With participants attending in person despite the pandemic, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said on Friday that the summit reflected the "deep concern about the situation in Myanmar and Asean's determination to help Myanmar get out of this delicate situation".

It's unusual for the leader of a military government in Myanmar to attend an Asean summit - usually the country has been represented by a lower-ranked officer or a civilian. Min Aung Hlaing was seen disembarking after arriving on a special flight from Naypyitaw, the Myanmar capital, according to footage on the official video channel of Indonesia's presidential palace.

Leaders' cars later entered the Asean Secretariat in the Indonesian capital, the venue for the meeting.

About two dozen protesters gathered nearby, beating pots and pans and holding signs saying "Democracy for Myanmar" and "We stand against the military coup". Police quickly moved them on.

Several protests were also held in Myanmar's main cities but there were no immediate reports of violence.

Diplomats and government officials who asked not to be named said many ASEAN leaders want a commitment from Min Aung Hlaing to restrain his security forces, who monitors say have killed 745 people since a mass civil disobedience movement emerged to challenge his Feb. 1 coup against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

"This is what Myanmar must avoid: geographical, political, social and national disintegration into warring ethnic parts," said Philippines Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin on Twitter. "Myanmar on its own must find peace again."

Min Aung Hlaing, on his first foreign trip since the coup, will address the summit later on Saturday along with each of the participants before more informal discussions begin, said three sources familiar with procedures.

The summit will be held in a "retreat" format, with leaders sitting in a circle and only one or two officials assisting each one, said Usana Berananda, a Thai foreign ministry official.

PUSH FOR DIALOGUE

Asean officials and diplomats have also worked on an initiative to send a humanitarian aid mission to Myanmar and appoint an envoy to encourage dialogue between the junta and the ousted lawmakers and armed ethnic groups who have formed an opposition National Unity Government (NUG).

The leaders of Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Brunei are at the meeting, along with the foreign ministers of Laos, Thailand and the Philippines.

Asean has a policy of consensus decision-making and non-interference in the affairs of its members, which include Myanmar.

While that makes it difficult to tackle contentious issues, the body is seen by the United Nations, China and the United States as best placed to deal with the junta directly.

"We in the [@UN] Security Council eagerly await the outcome of the @Asean meeting on Burma, which deserves serious and immediate attention," said U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield on Twitter.

Still, some analysts warned of the dangers of giving legitimacy to the junta by inviting its leader to the summit.

"Formal representation of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) at the Asean summit, without giving any concessions in return, including first and foremost a commitment to stop the bloodshed, is not constructive," Huong Le Thu, of the Australian Strategic Policy Initiative, wrote in an analysis of the Asean meeting.

A spokesman for the NUG, which is not attending the summit, told Reuters the group had "been in contact with Asean leaders".

Dr. Sasa, an international envoy for the NUG, who goes by one name, said Asean should insist the military stops killing civilians, halts the bombing of villages in ethnic minority areas, releases political prisoners and hands power to the NUG. - Reuters
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