Asean countries urge Myanmar military to end violence and work towards reconciliation

Myanmar police fired on demonstrators, even as the country's neighbours pressed it to stop using force and release ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

BANGKOK - Asean foreign ministers on Tuesday (March 2) urged the Myanmar military to desist from violence and respect the will of the Myanmar people, as the regime continued cracking down on protests against the Feb 1 coup.

The messages were conveyed during the informal Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) foreign ministers meeting on Tuesday, which was attended by Mr Wunna Maung Lwin, the top envoy appointed by Myanmar's military regime after the coup.

The online meeting came two days after security forces in Myanmar killed at least 18 people in the bloodiest crackdown yet on swelling protests nationwide.

"Asean wants to continue to engage and to be helpful and to be constructive wherever possible. But ultimately, the solution lies within Myanmar itself," Singapore foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan told the media after the meeting.

"The only way you're going to get a long-term sustainable viable solution is for national reconciliation to occur, and in particular we call for the release of the President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the other political detainees."

Both are currently detained incommunicado pending court trials. Ms Suu Kyi is facing four charges related to allegedly illegal use of walkie-talkies, alleged breach of pandemic control measures and the publication of information that may cause "fear and alarm". If convicted, she will be ruled out of a future election.

Dr Balakrishnan stressed that Singapore has not recognised the regime as Myanmar's government.

"We have not recognised the military leaders as the government of Myanmar," he said. "We do recognise, however, that under the 2008 Constitution, it provides for a special role for the military as an institution in the body politic of Myanmar."

Myanmar's Constitution guarantees the military a quarter of all seats in Parliament and control of the defence, home affairs and border affairs ministries.

Asean, which operates by consensus, has shied away from condemning the coup in its member state Myanmar, unlike the United States and other Western countries.

This, and the recent shuttle diplomacy of Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, has kept the door open to talks with the Myanmar military, with the aim of forging some negotiation between the key political stakeholders within Myanmar.

But the talks have been treated with deep suspicion by the anti-coup movement in Myanmar, which is fighting against any sort of international recognition for the military regime.

Analysts point out that the 10-nation bloc would need to bridge many different political positions to move forward on this issue since not all its members are democracies. But it cannot afford to sit back because Myanmar's political crisis threatens the bloc's partnerships with larger powers that have taken strong positions against the coup.

Reflecting this nuanced position, Dr Balakrishnan called the meeting "an opportunity for nine of us to listen to the representative of the military authorities from Myanmar", instead of a meeting among 10 foreign ministers.

Ms Retno said after the meeting: "Indonesia underlines that the will, the interest and the voices of the people of Myanmar must be respected."

Asean, she said, is ready to facilitate dialogue when required. But "Asean's hopes and well-meaning intentions to help will not materialise if Myanmar does not open its doors to Asean".

The Tatmadaw, which ruled the country for some five decades before 2011, alleges that the Nov 8 election that gave Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party its second sweeping victory is fraudulent. It promises to hold another poll after the one-year state of emergency.

Since seizing power on Feb 1, commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has made sweeping personnel changes in the ministries, courts and agencies like the Union Election Commission and reinstated laws that enable the junta to suppress dissent.

But people have largely refused to submit to its authority. Civil servants have gone on strike and a larger civil disobedience movement has hobbled the banking system.

Ousted lawmakers have also banded together to form the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a parliamentary representative body that Myanmar's ambassador to the United Nations, Mr Kyaw Moe Tun, publicly spoke for last Friday.

Journalists and others posting anti-coup content online have also been targeted.

Since Feb 14, at least 28 reporters have been arrested and 13 remained under detention as at Tuesday morning, according to the Detained Journalists Information Myanmar, a group compiling information on this matter.

Over 1,000 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced in relation to the coup, says the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earlier has called the crisis in Myanmar "tragic" but remained hopeful that wisdom would prevail.

"I think sense can still eventually prevail. It may take quite a long time, but it can happen. It has happened before," Mr Lee told BBC, referring to the situation after Myanmar's 1988 coup when the military eventually worked out a road map back to elections.

Dr Balakrishan said: "It is not yet too late. They are at the abyss of violence, which will be of terrible consequences for Myanmar and indeed for our region. It is not yet too late, and hence the plea for them to desist from this violent repression of the popular unrest that has resulted from the coup."

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