At ASEAN Meet, Malaysia to Push Myanmar Junta to Allow in Observers

Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
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At ASEAN Meet, Malaysia to Push Myanmar Junta to Allow in Observers Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) welcomes Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin at the presidential palace in Jakarta ahead of a bilateral meeting, Feb. 5, 2021.
[Handout photo from Indonesian Presidential Palace via AFP]

Malaysia, during a special ASEAN summit Saturday that the Burmese military leader is expected to attend, will press the junta of member-state Myanmar to allow observers from the regional bloc into that country, the top Malaysian diplomat said Tuesday.

Foreign Minister  Hishammuddin Hussein also announced that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin would attend the summit in Jakarta. That would make Muyhiddin one of only four leaders confirmed to participate, so far – in addition to Myanmar’s Min Aung Hlaing – in what was supposed to be a high-level meeting of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to discuss the post-coup turmoil in Myanmar.

“We hope that with our discussion in Jakarta, Myanmar will agree to receive representatives from the ASEAN chair Brunei or from the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta to observe and help Myanmar back to normalcy,” Hishammuddin told reporters, according to a video he posted on Twitter.

The “normalcy” that Hishammuddin was referring to was pre-coup Myanmar.

Since the Myanmar military toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on Feb. 1, the government’s armed forces and police have killed more than 700 people – mostly anti-coup protesters – according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Myanmar human rights group based in Thailand.

Hishammuddin said he reiterated Malaysia’s stand on the situation in Myanmar to the United Nations chief late on Tuesday.

“Just now, received a phone call from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. Spoke on Myanmar and reiterated Malaysia’s stand that the violence must stop; the political detainees must be released; and an ASEAN rep [resentative] must be allowed to meet with all parties involved,” Hishammuddin said.

Malaysia and Indonesia had spearheaded the call for an ASEAN leaders’ summit on the crisis in Myanmar, a move that was strongly supported by Singapore. The ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta formally confirmed on Tuesday that its offices would be the venue for the meeting on Saturday.

But as of Tuesday, Muhyiddin was only the fourth ASEAN leader, after Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, to confirm that he would be going to the summit at the bloc’s headquarters in the Indonesian capital.

Also on Tuesday, Brunei said that Prime Minister Bolkiah would chair the April 24 meeting, Reuters reported, citing a statement from his office. The sultanate on Borneo Island is this year’s holder of ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, a former junta chief, won’t be attending, he confirmed on Tuesday.

“Regarding the ASEAN summit I decided to send [Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister] Don Pramudwinai to attend and I know that many countries are also sending their foreign ministers,” Prayuth told reporters.

How this affects ASEAN’s response to the grim situation in Myanmar remains to be seen.

Notably, a special meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, called shortly after the military coup, failed to reach a consensus on demanding the immediate release of Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and others detained by the military. Instead, ASEAN merely called for a halt to violence in Myanmar and urged dialogue to end the crisis.

Muhyiddin ‘will remain firm’ on Malaysia’s stand on Myanmar

ASEAN has been lambasted for not being able to reach a consensus on how to deal with Myanmar’s junta in the more than two months since the coup and ensuing bloodshed carried out by the government forces. The regional bloc, after all, has its share of former military leaders and one-party states, such as Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

On Monday, U.N. chief Guterres also said he was disappointed by divisions within ASEAN that have prevented a united response from the regional grouping on Myanmar.

Malaysia’s foreign minister said Muhyiddin would reiterate to the Burmese junta that it must end the violence and release all political detainees.

“General Min [Aung Hlaing] will attend [the meeting]. Coincidently, he will be seated next to us but we are firm with our stand and principles as stated by the Prime Minister previously,” Hishammuddin said.

“[T]he Prime Minister will remain firm on the Min [Aung Hlaing] stand during the meeting that we will attend on Saturday. I will inform other countries’ foreign ministers when I met them on Malaysia’s stand and what the Prime Minister will bring to the ASEAN leaders meeting,” Hishammuddin said.

In the run-up to the special meeting officials from across ASEAN, including host-nation Indonesia, have mostly been tight-lipped about the summit. The ASEAN Secretariat’s statement Tuesday was similarly very short on details – it did not even say the meeting would discuss Myanmar.

Officials at the secretariat did not immediately respond on Tuesday to follow-up queries from BenarNews about the statement.

Meanwhile, there has been a renewed backlash against ASEAN after word came out that Min Aung Hlaing was invited to the April 24 meeting.

On Tuesday, an Indonesian coalition of civil society groups – including Amnesty International Indonesia, Milk Tea Alliance Indonesia and Forum Asia –said it deplored and rejected the participation of the Burmese junta chief.

The coalition said Myanmar must be represented by the “legitimate” National Unity Government (NUG) at the ASEAN summit. NUG is a parallel government launched Friday that comprises lawmakers who won seats in the November 2020 election, which the Myanmar military overturned by force.

The coalition also said ASEAN must secure a guarantee from the junta to allow health and humanitarian groups into conflict areas in Myanmar.

And it urged the Indonesian government to work with ASEAN to investigate Myanmar military personnel involved in the killings of unarmed civilian pro-democracy protesters.

Irine Putri, a lawmaker from the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), had said earlier that Min Aung Hlaing should not be welcomed in Jakarta and ASEAN should invite NUG representatives.

“The government of Indonesia must not grant recognition to the junta as the legitimate government of Myanmar, because this regime has massacred civilians and suppressed the democratic movement,” Irine said in a statement on Monday.

The NUG, for its part, deplored Min Aung Hlaing’s expected presence at the Jakarta meeting.

“If ASEAN is considering actions related to Myanmar affairs, I would like to say it will not work unless negotiating with the NUG, which is supported by the people and has full legitimacy,” NUG Deputy Foreign Minister Moe Zaw Oo told Voice of America on Sunday.

Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok and Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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