Indonesia, Singapore condemn Myanmar shooting as ASEAN convoy tries to deliver aid

Ahmad Syamsudin and Tria Dianti
Labuan Bajo, Indonesia, and Jakarta
Indonesia, Singapore condemn Myanmar shooting as ASEAN convoy tries to deliver aid A view of the Labuan Bajo marina, gateway to the Komodo National Park, is seen in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara province, Indonesia, where President Joko Widodo this week is hosting a summit of ASEAN leaders, May 8, 2023.
[Achmad Ibrahim/AP]

Updated at 5:29 p.m. ET on 2023-05-09

Indonesia and Singapore have condemned a shootout in Myanmar’s Shan state that locals said targeted a convoy of Southeast Asian diplomats delivering humanitarian assistance.

The incident Sunday occurred days before the start of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders’ summit, which is expected to discuss, among other issues, the post-coup crisis in Myanmar. 

Violence wouldn’t deter Indonesia, this year’s ASEAN’s chair, in its efforts to try to bring peace in Myanmar, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said on Monday from the Indonesian town of Labuan Bajo, the venue for this week’s summit of Southeast Asian leaders. 

The convoy was carrying members of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), Jokowi confirmed.

“Yesterday, the AHA Centre accompanied by an ASEAN monitoring team was delivering humanitarian aid but unfortunately there was a shootout on the way,” he told a news conference from the picturesque fishing town on Flores island where ASEAN leaders will meet from Tuesday through Thursday.  

The convoy came under fire on Sunday morning as officials headed to the Hsihseng township to discuss assistance for internally displaced persons (IDPs) with the Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLO), residents who didn’t want to be named for safety reasons told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news service affiliated with BenarNews.

The convoy included two officers each from the embassies of Indonesia and Singapore, three AHA Centre officials and several junta administrative workers, locals said.

Jokowi described the situation in Myanmar as “complex” but said the attack would “not dampen ASEAN’s and Indonesia’s determination to call for an end to the use of force and violence.” 

“Stop the violence because it will only hurt civilians and benefit no one. Let us sit together and start a dialogue,” the president said.

Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that two of its embassy staff were part of the convoy, and had returned to Yangon unharmed.

“Singapore condemns this attack. It is critical to safeguard the safety of humanitarian and diplomatic personnel, to ensure that they can continue their operations and provide necessary aid to those in need,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Only constructive dialogue among all key stakeholders in Myanmar can facilitate a peaceful solution in the interests of the people of Myanmar.”

Workers repair a building at a camp for internally displaced persons in Hsihseng township, in the Shan region of Myanmar, after it was damaged by strong winds, April 25, 2023. [Citizen Journalist]

It was not immediately clear who carried out the shootings.

Myanmar’s junta blamed unnamed “terrorists” for the shooting incident.

“It is feared that terrorists attacked a convoy of motor vehicles traveling from Taunggyi to Hsihseng to deliver humanitarian supplies to temporarily displaced families in Yay Phyu village there,” the junta’s Ministry of Information said in a statement. 

“When the security forces of the convoy responded to the attack and opened fire, the terrorist retreated. …No one was injured in the incident and a security vehicle was hit by some small bullets from small arms.”

The shadow civilian government’s Ministry of Defense said pro-democracy forces had nothing to do with the incident.

Naing Htoo Aung, the shadow National Unity Government’s secretary of the Ministry of Defense, told the NUG’s news agency that the area was controlled by the junta’s forces, the PNO,  and pro-junta militia. Resistance forces could not carry out such an attack because it was “not a geographically strategic location,” he said.

A PNO military affairs official who requested anonymity for security reasons told RFA that five PNLO members carried out the shooting

But PNLO leader Khun Okkar denied it. He said some of the group's own officials were in the convoy so it had no motive to carry out the attack. "It was impossible that PNLO attacked its own officials," Khun Okkar told RFA Burmese.

“This incident was caused by a political rivalry in our region," he said, suggesting that a local militia allied to the junta was responsible, but declining to name it.

The PNLO itself is party to a 2015 national ceasefire agreement reached with a previous pro-military government in Myanmar.

RFA also called and emailed the embassies of Indonesia and Singapore in Yangon about the incident but received no reply.

The delivery of aid by the AHA Centre is part of a five-point ASEAN plan agreed to in April 2021, after a military coup ousted an elected government in February that year and sparked a nationwide uprising. More than 3,400 people have been killed since the generals seized power.

The conflict in Myanmar is likely to be one of the main topics of the ASEAN summit, but junta leader Myanmar’s Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has not been invited to attend.

‘Sanctions are not a solution’

Sunday’s incident underscored the need for ASEAN to cooperate with local organizations “who obviously know more about the local political landscape and dynamics,” Muhammad Arif, an international relations lecturer at the University of Indonesia, told BenarNews.

“The harsh reality is that unfortunately there is no quick solution to the crisis in Myanmar. Indonesia’s gradual and inclusive approach might be our best chance, but it inevitably takes time,” he said.

“What Indonesia can do as the chair of ASEAN is to help create an external environment that is not conducive for the junta in Myanmar to sustain its role. Indonesia engaging various concerned governments can be seen as part of this effort.” 

Last week. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Jakarta had quietly engaged with the parallel civilian government and military administration, as well as China, India and Thailand, in an effort to build trust “with non-megaphone diplomacy.” 

Among the stakeholders Indonesia has engaged with are the junta; the shadow National Unity Government (NUG); Ethnic Armed Organizations in Myanmar; the European Union; Japan; the United Nations and the United States, Retno said.

Ethnic Entha community display placards during a protest against the military coup in Inle Lake, Taunggyi, Myanmar, Feb. 11, 2021. [Aung Ko San/AP]

ASEAN needs to continue its efforts to reach out to all parties in Myanmar and bring unity among all its ethnic groups despite the difficulties, Awani Irewati, a researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency, told BenarNews.

“ASEAN should not abandon or isolate Myanmar, because it will make it more dependent on China. China has a strong economic and strategic interest in Myanmar. China’s interaction with Myanmar is dominated by economic issues, while the ASEAN-Myanmar dialogue has always prioritized the opening of democracy.”

On Sunday, Jokowi told reporters that the path to a solution to the Myanmar crisis had to be through dialogue, local media reported.

“In my opinion, sanctions are not a solution,” the Indonesian president, according to a report by Kompas.

The Myanmar coup has strained ASEAN’s unity and credibility. The regional bloc has struggled to find a common stance and exert influence over the junta, which has ignored its calls for dialogue involving all parties, an end to violence and the release of political prisoners. 

Summit agenda

This week’s ASEAN summit is also expected to address other issues such as the South China Sea disputes and maritime security as well as the promotion of human rights and democracy in ASEAN.

Indonesia said the summit would focus on making the regional bloc more relevant and resilient amid long-term challenges.

“This is important to prepare ASEAN to face long-term challenges. This is where we need to strengthen the capacity and institution of ASEAN to make it more agile,” Retno said on Friday. 

She said Indonesia had three main pillars for its chairmanship: making ASEAN matter in regional and global affairs, making ASEAN an epicenter of economic growth and resilience, and implementing the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

The AOIP is a document that outlines ASEAN’s approach to cooperation and engagement with other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, which has become a hotspot of geopolitical rivalry and tension.

“This is very important considering the sharper rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region,” she said.

Retno said that leaders from Myanmar and Thailand would not attend the summit, with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha being preoccupied with elections in his country.

Indonesia expects the summit to end with the full membership of the tiny nation of Timor Leste, and various initiatives on human trafficking, migrant workers, fisheries, health, rural development, electric vehicles, and payment connectivity.

RFA Burmese and Pizaro Gozali Idrus for BenarNews in Jakarta contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to clarify the description of the PNLO.


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