By Ronna Nirmala
Southeast Asian nations called Tuesday for a halt to escalating violence in Myanmar, and dialogue to end the crisis there, as some countries demanded the immediate release of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others detained by the military after it seized power last month.
But a special foreign ministers’ meeting convened to discuss Myanmar and attended by its representative also exposed rifts within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with Singapore warning that the inability to reach a common position on the coup undermined the 10-member bloc’s credibility and relevance. This was ASEAN’s first high-level meeting as a bloc to discuss the crisis in Myanmar.
“We expressed our concern on the situation in Myanmar and called on all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise their utmost restraint as well as flexibility,” Brunei, the current chair of ASEAN, said in a statement summarizing the meeting.
“We also called on all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution, through constructive dialogue, and practical reconciliation in the interests of the people and their livelihoods.”
At least 18 people were killed when security forces fired on protesters in cities across Myanmar on Sunday, the bloodiest day in a month of mass demonstrations against the military’s ouster of Suu Kyi’s elected government.
The special meeting of ASEAN’s top diplomats was held virtually and came after Malaysia and Indonesia jointly called for such a meeting days after the Myanmar military seized power on Feb. 1.
Amid criticism that the regional grouping had failed to take a strong collective stand on Myanmar, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said it was crucial for ASEAN that the bloc be united in upholding the principles of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.
“It is critical that ASEAN continues to reiterate our guiding principles in light of the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar,” Balakrishnan said in a statement.
“If not, we will have no choice but to state our views on the situation as individual ASEAN Member States. But quite frankly, this would starkly underscore our lack of unity, and undermine our credibility and relevance as an organization.”
In individual statements issued after Tuesday’s special meeting, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore urged Myanmar’s military rulers to free Suu Kyi and other political leaders who were arrested during the coup.
“Malaysia calls for the prompt and unconditional release of detained political leaders in Myanmar, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Win Myint and their associates, and encourages dialogue between parties concerned,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told his ASEAN counterparts during the online meeting.
Singapore also called for Myanmar armed forces to pledge to not use deadly force on protesters.
Suu Kyi and Win Myint, who served as state counselor and president of Myanmar, respectively, from 2018 until the Feb. 1 coup, have been under arrest since the government was toppled. The coup took place after weeks of tensions that followed the Nov. 8 general election, which Suu Kyi’s party easily won, but which the military said was tainted by voter fraud.
Since the coup, at least 22 people – mostly pro-democracy demonstrators – have been killed and more than 30 wounded by Myanmar’s security forces. On Tuesday, Myanmar’ soldiers and police fired live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas at anti-coup protesters, leaving at least three people critically injured, news agencies reported.
In an unusually strong statement for the Philippines, Manila on Tuesday urged the Burmese military to return power to the government that was democratically elected in November.
“Our call is for the complete return to the previously existing state of affairs: with respect to the preeminent role of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; alongside the Army her father created for the protection of the people he led to freedom and the country he gave them at the cost of his life,” Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in a statement.
“This is what is needed. And the first step should be for the immediate release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and subsequent dialogue among the parties involved in their country’s destiny.”
For her part, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that while ASEAN members must adhere to the bloc’s founding principle of non-interference, they have a duty to respect its values for democracy, human rights, good governance, rule of law and constitutional government.
“If ASEAN fails to uphold and implement these principles, Indonesia is concerned that ASEAN will not be able to fully serve its people, which would hinder the aspiration to build an ASEAN Community. … Indonesia is certain that ASEAN stands ready to play its role when required,” Retno said.
There had been harsh criticism of her “shuttle diplomacy” last week, during which the top diplomat of ASEAN’s largest nation met with her military-appointed Myanmar counterpart in Bangkok.
Last week, when Reuters reported that Indonesia endorsed a plan by the Myanmar junta to hold new elections – which Jakarta denied – hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Indonesian Embassy in Yangon. They said that Myanmar already had a legitimate government that was democratically elected four months ago.
Malaysia’s Hishammuddin on Tuesday also proposed that ASEAN form a group of “eminent persons or experts in electoral matters to help bridge the discrepancies found in the last general elections.”
Myanmar, he said, may consider allowing the secretary-general and chair of ASEAN to visit the country and give access to all parties involved.
ASEAN: Torn between the West and China
Analysts described what they said was ASEAN’s difficult position vis-à-vis Myanmar.
In issuing a “flat and normative” statement summarizing the meeting, ASEAN chair Brunei was likely trying “to avoid putting Myanmar in a corner,” said Teuku Rezasyah, a lecturer in international relations at Padjajaran University in Bandung, Indonesia.
“After all, ASEAN is currently in a difficult position, torn between the West and China. So what I’m worried about is if ASEAN takes an overtly hard line and is not trying to be accommodative, Myanmar will choose to consult China.”
Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, noted that the regional bloc would not want another humanitarian disaster like the one that saw more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees flee Myanmar during a brutal military offensive in Rakhine state in 2017.
“It is in ASEAN’s interests to keep open lines of communication with the Tatmadaw so long as it holds power, if for no other reason than to use these channels to urge the army to return to its barracks post-haste,” Connelly said, using the official name for Myanmar’s military.
But, in engaging with the junta, “ASEAN risks legitimizing the very coup that gives rise to these risks,” he said.
Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur and Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.