Malaysia: Will Talk With Myanmar’s Shadow Govt if ASEAN Efforts Fail

Hadi Azmi, Ronna Nirmala and Shailaja Neelakantan
Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Washington
2021-10-06
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Malaysia: Will Talk With Myanmar’s Shadow Govt if ASEAN Efforts Fail Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (right), the Myanmar armed forces chief, meets with Bruneian Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Yusof (left) in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, June 4, 2021.
[Myanmar News Agency handout via AFP]

Malaysia said Wednesday it would open talks with Myanmar’s shadow government if the junta fails to cooperate with ASEAN’s conflict resolution efforts – the first such declaration by a member of the regional bloc.

ASEAN members meanwhile were discussing excluding Myanmar from an upcoming summit because he had “backtracked” on a pact to restore peace and democracy, the bloc’s special envoy said, days after Malaysia advocated the move in public comments that a junta spokesman dismissed as “personal remarks.”

Wong Chen, a Malaysian lawmaker, asked Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah in parliament whether Kuala Lumpur would begin a dialogue with the civilian National Unity Government (NUG) in Myanmar, if the junta barred the ASEAN envoy from talking to all parties.

“[T]he process to implement the five-point consensus is still being worked on with whatever that is humanly possible, by the special envoy,” Saifuddin said.

“If that does not happen … I believe what was raised by the MP … can be done if what was agreed in the consensus cannot be achieved.”

When it ousted the elected government in a coup on Feb. 1, the Burmese military claimed that voter fraud had led to a landslide victory for civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. The junta threw her and members of the NLD government in jail.

The junta also got security forces to turn the guns onto their own people when thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to the streets around the country after the coup. Close to 1,060 Burmese – mostly anti-coup protesters – have been killed in the eight months since.

Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief in ASEAN member-state Myanmar, had agreed to the five-point consensus during an in-person meeting with Southeast Asian leaders in Jakarta on April 24. The points include stopping violence, a commitment to dialogue with all parties and an ASEAN emissary to facilitate this dialogue.

In Kuala Lumpur, Saifuddin told parliament that ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar, while briefing foreign ministers of the bloc on Monday, had said Naypyidaw was not cooperating on the consensus.

If that continues, some stern steps need to be taken, the Malaysian foreign minister said.

‘Saifuddin is doing the right thing’

On Monday, Saifuddin had recommended the first of these steps, when he forcefully and clearly said that if no progress was made on the ASEAN consensus, Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing should be excluded from the bloc’s upcoming summit, scheduled for Oct. 26-28.

The Malaysian minister got ASEAN listening.

Erywan Yusof, the ASEAN envoy to Myanmar, told reporters on Wednesday that ASEAN was seriously considering disinviting Min Aung Hlaing to its summit.

“I can say that we are now deeply in discussion on this matter,” Erywan said during a press conference in Bandar Seri Begawan.

He did say other ASEAN members had raised the same idea, but analysts noted earlier this week that a strong public statement, such as Malaysia’s, would put pressure on ASEAN as a bloc.

Even the Myanmar junta spokesman saw the idea as Malaysia’s, when Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, asked him about it on Tuesday.

“This is just his personal remark,” junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun told RFA, referring to Foreign Minister Saifuddin.

“It’s not ASEAN’s stance, because it would need a consensus. … So the remarks you mentioned have to be taken as just personal remarks.” 

One regional political analyst, Oh Ei Sun, commended Malaysia’s top diplomat for speaking out on the issue of excluding the Myanmar junta chief from the summit as well as saying that he would talk to the Burmese shadow government.

“Saifuddin is doing the right thing: ramping up the pressure on the recalcitrant junta,” Oh, from the Institute of International Affairs in Singapore, told BenarNews.

“Now the junta is likely to be not so friendly to Malaysian investments and businesses there. But that is the price to pay for diplomatic leadership. Malaysia must also persuade like-minded ASEAN countries to take a similar strong stand. Indonesia for example …”

To recognize Myanmar’s parallel civilian government would pay ASEAN dividends, according to another Southeast Asia analyst, Azmi Hassan.

“ASEAN countries threatening to recognize NUG will put pressure on the military junta to uphold the promise they made in April to ASEAN,” he told BenarNews.

“While it will make the junta angry, ASEAN will gain a strong dialog partner by engaging with the NUG.”

‘Myanmar had to step aside’

ASEAN envoy Erywan, in his remarks Wednesday, said that Myanmar had yet to respond to his request for “meeting all parties concerned,” including the imprisoned civilian government leaders, as agreed to in the five-point consensus.

“…the concern is that there seems to be, up until Monday, and even until today, actually, no progress on the implementation of the five-point consensus,” Erywan said, referring to the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting earlier this week.

This had raised a concern, he said, because the junta chief had committed with other ASEAN leaders to the consensus back in April.

“It is tantamount to basically backtracking,” Erywan said.

But junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun told RFA “it would be very difficult for us to hold talks with those from groups we have declared illegal” or who are under trial.

“I have never heard of any governments allowing foreign delegates to meet with a person under trial or a person or representatives of illegal organizations, except in very special circumstances,” he said.

He was referring to jailed NLD members, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

RFA asked the junta spokesman how it would affect Myanmar’s military government if its chief were to be barred from the summit.

“Apart from some criticisms in the international community, there won’t be any [consequences],” he said.

“There might be, more or less, some repercussions on certain ASEAN projects or meetings or work being carried out in conjunction with other countries.”

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