Myanmar junta chief arrives for talks with Southeast Asian leaders

The gathering of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta is the first coordinated international effort to ease the crisis in Myanmar, an impoverished country that neighbors China, India and Thailand. Myanmar is part of the 10-nation ASEAN.

With participants attending in person despite the pandemic, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said on Friday the summit reflected the “deep concern about the situation in Myanmar and ASEAN’s determination to help Myanmar get out of this delicate situation.”

It’s unusual for the leader of a military government in Myanmar to attend an ASEAN summit — usually the country has been represented by a lower-ranked officer or a civilian. Min Aung Hlaing was seen disembarking after arriving on a special flight from Naypyitaw, the Myanmar capital, according to footage on the official video channel of Indonesia’s presidential palace.

Diplomats and government officials who asked not to be named said many ASEAN leaders want a commitment from Min Aung Hlaing to restrain his security forces, who monitors say have killed 745 people since a mass civil disobedience movement emerged to challenge his February 1 coup against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

“This is what Myanmar must avoid: geographical, political, social and national disintegration into warring ethnic parts,” said Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin on Twitter. “Myanmar on its own must find peace again.”

Min Aung Hlaing, on his first foreign trip since the coup, will address the summit later on Saturday along with each of the participants before more informal discussions begin, said three sources familiar with procedures.

The summit will be held in a “retreat” format, with leaders sitting in a circle and only one or two officials assisting each one, said Usana Berananda, a Thai Foreign Ministry official.

Push for dialog

ASEAN officials and diplomats have also worked on an initiative to send a humanitarian aid mission to Myanmar and appoint an envoy to encourage dialog between the junta and the ousted lawmakers and armed ethnic groups who have formed an opposition National Unity Government (NUG).

The leaders of Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Brunei have confirmed their attendance, along with the foreign ministers of Laos, Thailand and the Philippines.

Myanmar releases prisoners for New Year, though likely not dissidents

ASEAN has a policy of consensus decision-making and non-interference in the affairs of its members, which include Myanmar.

While that makes it difficult to tackle contentious issues, the body is seen by the United Nations, China and the United States as best placed to deal with the junta directly.

The summit, called for by Indonesian President Joko Widodo last month, is a departure from the tightly choreographed leaders’ meetings that are typical of ASEAN, said Evan Laksmana, a Jakarta-based security analyst.

“There is no precedent, especially given the expressed intent to discuss the problems of one member state,” he said,

A spokesman for the NUG, which is not attending the summit, told Reuters the group had “been in contact with ASEAN leaders.”

Dr. Sasa, an international envoy for the NUG, who goes by one name, said ASEAN should insist the military stops killing civilians, halts the bombing of villages in ethnic minority areas, releases political prisoners and hands power to the NUG.

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