Myanmar junta chief 'not opposed' to visit by Asean delegation, humanitarian aid: PM Lee

People attending a protest in Launglon, Myanmar, on April 23, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Myanmar's junta chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, appears open to letting Asean send a delegation to visit the violence-racked country, as well as provide humanitarian assistance, after meeting leaders of the bloc at a special summit in Jakarta on Saturday (April 24).

At the meeting to discuss Myanmar's crisis, Asean leaders agreed on a five-point consensus which also called for violence in the country to cease immediately, and for dialogue among all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution.

This process will be facilitated by a special Asean envoy, aided by the Asean secretary-general.

The special envoy and an Asean delegation will visit Myanmar, while the bloc will also provide humanitarian aid.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking after the meeting, said Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who staged a coup on Feb 1, had told the regional leaders at the meeting "he was not opposed to Asean playing a constructive role or an Asean delegation visit or humanitarian assistance, and that they would move forward and engage with Asean in a constructive way".

The Jakarta meeting was the first in-person meeting of Asean leaders since the Covid-19 outbreak.

The involvement of Gen Min Aung Hlaing at the summit sparked strong condemnation from Myanmar's National Unity Government (NUG), which was formed by ousted lawmakers and their allies on April 16 and stakes its claim as the legitimate representative of Myanmar.

Mock funeral ceremonies were held in protest against the coup leader in Myanmar on Saturday, while Indonesian police dispersed a protest near the summit venue.

After Asean chair Brunei released the bloc's five-point consensus, NUG minister for international cooperation, Dr Sasa, who goes by one name, said the NUG welcomed the "encouraging news".

"We eagerly await the engagement by the (Asean) secretary-general as mandated by this meeting," he wrote. "We look forward to firm action by Asean to follow up (on) its decisions and to restore our democracy and freedom for our people and for the region."

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, who have been detained since the coup, retain their positions in the NUG.

Singapore's call for the violence to cease and political prisoners to be released was echoed by several leaders at the summit, including Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

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"Violence must be stopped and democracy, stability and peace in Myanmar must be returned immediately. The interests of the Myanmar people must always be a priority," said Mr Widodo in a press statement after the meeting.

Bernama news agency meanwhile quoted Mr Muhyiddin as saying: "We have succeeded. It's beyond our expectation in getting the outcome from today's meeting."

Mr Lee warned however that there was a lot of way to go before real resolution is reached.

"There is a long way forward, because it is one thing to say you will cease violence and release political prisoners, it is another thing to get it done.

"To have an inclusive discussion in order to reach a political resolution, it is even harder still, but at least there are some steps forward which we can take."

As at Friday, 745 people in the anti-coup movement have been killed by the junta, and more than 3,300 imprisoned, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Local reports say scores more have been abducted by security forces.

Myanmar, Asean's poorest country, was already struggling to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic before the Feb 1 coup and the political crisis has only deepened the desperation. The United Nations World Food Programme warned on Thursday that up to 3.4 million more people - especially those in urban centres - will be hungry within the next six months.

Heightened conflict between Myanmar's military and ethnic armed groups that have pledged support for the anti-coup movement has also swelled the number of displaced villagers, raising the likelihood that Myanmar's immediate neighbours could see a flood of refugees on their doorstep.

PM Lee said: "The resolution has to be amongst the people of Myanmar and the government of Myanmar, the elected parties as well as the Tatmadaw (the armed forces).

"The armed forces are a key institution in Myanmar and you cannot just say we put them out of the picture and then we carry on without them. It is not possible. The society will split, and the remaining system cannot function. So that is for Myanmar to decide."

Asean, which takes decisions by consensus and is constrained by a policy of non-interference, had previously not been able to muster a tangible response beyond calls to de-escalate the situation in Myanmar.

The crisis was seen as the biggest test of Asean's relevance in recent years.

The heads of governments of Laos, Thailand and the Philippines skipped the summit.

The most conspicuous absence was that of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who Gen Min Aung Hlaing wrote to shortly after the coup to reportedly ask for help in supporting democracy. Mr Prayut, himself a former army chief who staged a coup in 2014, cited the need to handle Thailand's Covid-19 outbreak as a reason for not attending the summit.

Five-point consensus

On the situation in Myanmar, Asean leaders reached consensus on the following.

  1. Immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and all parties shall exercise utmost restraint.
  2. Constructive dialogue among all parties concerned shall commence to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people.
  3. A special envoy of the Asean Chair shall facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, with the assistance of the Secretary-General of Asean.
  4. Asean shall provide humanitarian assistance through the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management.
  5. The special envoy and delegation shall visit Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.

Additional reporting by Arlina Arshad

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