Asean urges Myanmar to end violence, seek reconciliation

Messages conveyed to regime's top envoy during informal meeting of foreign ministers

Asean foreign ministers yesterday 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 Asean foreign ministers meeting yesterday, 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 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's 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 President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the other political detainees."

Both are currently detained incommunicado pending court trials.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong 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," PM Lee said in an interview with the BBC.

He added that using lethal force against unarmed demonstrators was not acceptable. "If (the Myanmar population) decide that the government is not on their side, I think the government has a very big problem," PM Lee said.

Dr Balakrishnan stressed that Singapore has not recognised the regime as Myanmar's government, but recognises that the country's Constitution provides for a special role for the military. This includes reserving a quarter of all seats in Parliament and control of key 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 junta.

Analysts point out that the 10-nation bloc 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 between 10 foreign ministers.

Ms Retno said Asean 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 (as the military is called) - 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 tried to stamp the junta's authority, only to meet with fierce protests that the authorities have cracked down on.

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."

• Additional reporting by Arlina Arshad

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2021, with the headline Asean urges Myanmar to end violence, seek reconciliation. Subscribe