Anwar says Asean should ‘carve’ Myanmar out for now

MalaysiaPM Anwar Ibrahim said he remains optimistic about the future of Asean, but stressed that Myanmar's junta needs to end "atrocities" committed against its people. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said on Friday that Asean should “carve” Myanmar out for now, rather than let the country’s crisis hinder the 10-nation bloc.

“We should carve Myanmar out for now, and I don’t think the Myanmar issue should frustrate our moves. It would be ideal if we could have just a strong consensus in giving a strong message to the Myanmar regime,” he said in Thailand during his first official visit since assuming the premiership.

Myanmar has been mired in political and economic turmoil since a February 2021 military coup. It is currently not represented at top-level Asean summits because the bloc invites only a “non-political representative” from Myanmar – a stance which the Myanmar junta argues amounts to interference in the country’s domestic affairs.

The remaining nine members of Asean differ in their views on Myanmar, with neighbouring Thailand more openly engaging with senior leaders in the military regime. Malaysia has spoken out strongly against the junta. Its former foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah has publicly met leaders from Myanmar’s National Unity Government, which is competing with the junta for international legitimacy.

In his keynote speech at an event organised by the Malaysian-Thai Chamber of Commerce on Friday, Datuk Seri Anwar said he remains optimistic about the future of Asean.

But he stressed that the Myanmar junta must end “atrocities” committed against its people.

“You have every right to have your own domestic policies and priorities, but no country in these times should ever continue with discriminatory policies, marginalisation of their people, intimidating, or worse, perpetrating violence against your own people,” he said.

It is not clear what Mr Anwar meant by “carve” Myanmar out of Asean. As an opposition politician in March 2021, Mr Anwar co-signed a statement with five other Asean counterparts urging Asean governments to suspend Myanmar from the bloc if the junta did not free all political prisoners and reinstate the country’s civilian government.

Myanmar’s military junta, which calls itself the State Administration Council, has so far paid little heed to a road map for resolution drawn up by Asean in 2021. On Feb 1, it extended the state of emergency by another six months, ostensibly to stabilise the country for fresh elections to replace the 2020 one won by the now-ousted National League for Democracy party. The junta is now battling armed resistance that sprang up in response to the coup.

Indonesia, as rotating chair of Asean in 2023, has yet to announce whom it will appoint as the Asean special envoy on Myanmar tasked with handling this crisis. The previous two envoys were Brunei’s Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof and Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn. Both were unable to gain access to deposed and imprisoned state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and former president Win Myint.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has said Asean’s development must not be held hostage by the Myanmar crisis.

While meeting Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Thursday, Mr Anwar urged Thailand to play a bigger role in addressing Myanmar’s crisis. He also highlighted that Malaysia hosts 200,000 refugees, mostly ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar.

Mr Anwar told Mr Prayut: “You are in a better position to express many of our concerns that the internal issue in Myanmar has to be resolved internally, but it has ramifications or repercussions into the region.”

Mr Anwar on Friday revealed that he had been talking about the Myanmar issue with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Mr Prayut, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, and will soon reach out to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

He stressed the need to “go beyond” current efforts.

“We don’t want outsiders to interfere. We don’t want the United States and Europe to tell us what to do. But we have to do something. We have to be courageous enough to try and resolve this.”

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