By Hadi Azmi and Nisha David
Washington is considering “additional steps” to press the Burmese junta into putting Myanmar on the path to democracy, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said here Wednesday before cutting short his first official Southeast Asia trip after someone in his traveling party tested positive for COVID-19.
The United States Treasury, joined by Canada and the United Kingdom, issued sanctions last week against four Myanmar top officials and three military entities over alleged human rights abuses.
“The situation has not improved. We had a lengthy discussion about this,” Blinken told reporters after he met with Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah in Putrajaya.
“I think it will be very important in weeks, in months ahead to look at the additional steps and measures that we can take individually and collectively to pressure the regime to put the country back on a democratic trajectory.”
Blinken arrived here from Indonesia and was planning to go on to Bangkok, the third and final stop of his first tour of Southeast Asia as secretary of state. But he had to cancel the Bangkok leg of his trip and return to Washington because of a coronavirus case detected in his traveling party.
Blinken spoke with Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai to explain he was cutting his trip short “out of an abundance of caution,” according to State Department spokesman Ned Price.
“The secretary extended an invitation for the foreign minister to visit Washington, D.C., at the earliest opportunity and noted that he looked forward to traveling to Thailand as soon as possible. They affirmed that they would use the upcoming engagements to further deepen the U.S.-Thai alliance,” Price said in a statement.
Speaking to reporters, America’s top diplomat said the U.S. government was calling for Myanmar to release those who were unjustly detained, including former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and to allow unhindered humanitarian access caused by the worsening crisis in the country.
Earlier this month, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose elected government was ousted in a Feb. 1 military coup led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of incitement and violation of COVID-19 regulations.
On Tuesday, Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news service with which BenarNews is affiliated, reported the death of freelance photographer Soe Naing, the first journalist killed in Myanmar since the coup.
He was arrested on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, while documenting a nationwide “Silent Strike” boycott against junta rule and died while in custody, family members confirmed.
More than 8,000 civilians have been arrested and 1,343 killed by junta authorities, mostly during non-violent protests following the coup, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Blinken indicated that Washington was investigating potential evidence of genocide in Myanmar.
“We continue to look actively at determinations of what the actions taken by Myanmar and whether they constitute genocide and that is something we are actively looking at now,” he said.
He also said Myanmar would be one of the topics to be discussed during a planned U.S.-ASEAN summit next year. Other issues expected to be discussed are COVID-19 recovery, trade and green infrastructure.
Meanwhile in Cambodia on Wednesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose nation is the new chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), announced his choice to serve as the 10-member group’s special envoy to Myanmar – Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, according to China’s Xinhua news service.
Sokhonn succeeds Brunei Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, whose government finished its one-year term as ASEAN chair in October. Myanmar is one of ASEAN’s 10 members.
Analyst raises questions
A regional analyst from the University of Kuala Lumpur questioned whether Washington would sanction Naypyidaw because of its relationship with Beijing.
“China will condemn what the U.S. tries to impose on Myanmar and it will create another tension between superpowers in the Asia Pacific region,” Aizat Khairi told BenarNews.
Blinken is instead reaching out to ASEAN countries, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, to apply pressure on Myanmar, Aizat said.
“Nevertheless, the ASEAN’s policy of non-interference could not do much to put pressure on Myanmar,” he said. “Therefore, the initiative introduced by Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah to do some ‘soul-searching’ seems more relevant to request the military leadership in Myanmar restore the nation to its democratic path with a specific timeline and goal.”
Saifuddin had previously called for ASEAN to do some “soul searching” on its principle of not interfering in the domestic affairs of member-states.
“So ASEAN has to find out in cases like this, perhaps, there are – there is Plan A and Plan B and Plan C, and not just to stick to one and that one is not working and you still stick to it. So we have to do some soul-searching,” Saifuddin told reporters on Wednesday.
In October, regional leaders barred Min Aung Hlaing from attending their summit following a row over Naypyidaw’s restriction over whether the special envoy could visit as part of a special five-point consensus, which was agreed to at a special ASEAN summit in Jakarta back in April.
That consensus included a call for the immediate end of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties, and the creation of the special envoy.
The junta refused to allow Brunei’s Yusof to meet Aung San Suu Kyi because she had been charged with crimes.
On Wednesday, Saifuddin suggested that ASEAN establish milestones for measuring meaningful progress on the Myanmar crisis. He expects this to be discussed at the regional bloc’s foreign ministers’ retreat on Jan. 19.
“We should be looking at what are the real next steps. For example, we should identify real milestone. We have the five-point consensus, but we do not identify exactly when certain things need to be achieved and how,” Saifuddin said.