US dismisses Myanmar election plan, urges Asean pressure

Ahead of the Asean talks, Myanmar's junta chief promised to hold elections and lift a state of emergency by August 2023.
Ahead of the Asean talks, Myanmar's junta chief promised to hold elections and lift a state of emergency by August 2023.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States said Monday (Aug 2) that Myanmar's junta was playing for time with a two-year election timeframe as Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepared to encourage Asean to appoint an envoy.

Mr Blinken is participating virtually in a week of talks involving foreign ministers of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), the latest bid by US President Joe Biden's administration to engage a region at the frontlines of US competition with China.

The official briefing reporters ahead of a week of virtual meetings involving US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and regional counterparts said Washington had proposed expanding engagement with Asean to include five new “multi-ministerial"-level dialogues, which it hoped the bloc would agree to soon.

The official said one of the areas was climate, but did not list the others. He said he expected Blinken to provide details to Asean ministers of continued US support for South-east Asia in the fight against Covid-19, which has hit the region hard.

Blinken would also raise what Washington sees as China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, he said.

Ahead of the Asean talks, Myanmar's junta chief promised to hold elections and lift a state of emergency by August 2023, extending an initial timeline given when the military deposed elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1.

The announcement is "a call for Asean to have to step up its effort because it's clear that the Burmese junta is just stalling for time and wants to keep prolonging the calendar to its own advantage", said a senior US official, using Myanmar's former name of Burma. "All the more reason why Asean has to engage on this and live up and uphold the terms of the five-point consensus that Myanmar also signed up to."

Asked about China’s warnings that if Washington expected cooperation on issues such as climate, it would need to de-escalate tensions, the official replied: “Look, if we can’t force China to cooperate, we can continue to point out the advantages, and hopefully they’ll see that this is also in their advantage to work with us on climate issues.”

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing attended a meeting with Asean members on the crisis in April that led to the so-called consensus statement that called for an immediate end to violence and a regional special envoy.

But the junta leader later distanced himself from the statement, no envoy has been appointed and more than 900 people have been reported killed in the six-month crackdown on dissent.

Asean is not known for its collective diplomatic clout and its meetings have frequently pitted the United States and China against each other as they seek influence.

The US official said Blinken would address Beijing's "coercion" against Asean nations in the dispute-rife South China Sea and also highlight human rights concerns within China.

Washington is seeking to show through Blinken’s participation in five consecutive days of regional meetings that the Biden administration is serious about engaging with allies and partners in its bid to push back against China’s growing influence.

As well as the US-Asean ministerial talks, Blinken will also participate virtually this week in ministerial meetings of the East Asia Summit, the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), the Mekong-US Partnership and the Friends of the Mekong initiative.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visited South-east Asia last week, where he hammered in on the South China Sea, saying Beijing's claims had no basis in international law.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris plans this month to visit historic US partner Singapore as well as Vietnam, which has moved increasingly close to Washington despite war memories.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi is expected to meet Blinken in person in Washington this week, while Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman earlier visited Indonesia and Thailand as well as Cambodia - often seen as the most pro-Beijing Asean nation.