ASEAN set for talks with Myanmar military as crisis escalates

In a virtual meeting, regional foreign ministers will call for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and encourage talks between the civilian leader and the military.

The coffin of Nyi Nyi Aung Htet Naing, who died from a gunshot wound while attending a demonstration against the military coup, is carried during his funeral service in Yangon [AFP]

ASEAN foreign ministers are preparing to hold virtual talks with a representative of Myanmar’s military on Tuesday, as anti-coup protesters returned to the streets in the main city of Yangon defying fresh threats from Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan, in a televised interview late on Monday, said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will tell the military it is appalled by the violence in Myanmar and call for the release of the country’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and for the two sides to talk.

“Instability in any corner of Southeast Asia threatens and affects the rest of us,” he said, adding that the coup will cause “grievous damage to Myanmar’s society and economy”.

The military’s February 1 power grab has plunged Myanmar into chaos, drawing hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets of cities and towns across the country as doctors, teachers and other civil servants stop work in protest against the coup.

In the bloodiest crackdown yet, security forces opened fire on protesters on Sunday, killing at least 18 and wounding dozens more.

The killings triggered widespread international condemnation, including from the United Nations and a group of ASEAN legislators who said they were “alarmed at the scale of arbitrary arrests and surge in violence in Myanmar”.

Protesters wearing basic protective gear looks on during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 2, 2021 [Stringer/ AFP]
A protester wearing an improvised tear gas protection gear looks on during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 2, 2021 [Stringer/ AFP]

ASEAN, which comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, also renewed its efforts to open a channel between Myanmar’s military and civilian leaders.

Philippine foreign minister, Teodoro Locsin, indicated on Twitter that ASEAN would be firm with Myanmar and said the regional group’s policy of non-interference in a member’s internal affairs “is not a blanket approval or tacit consent for wrong to be done there”.

He also called Aung San Suu Kyi “Burmese democracy’s only hope”.

‘Illegitimate military-led regime’

But ASEAN’s effort to engage with Myanmar’s military was met with a fierce rebuke from groups in the anti-coup movement.

Sa Sa, a representative of a committee of deposed legislators, said ASEAN should have no dealings with “this illegitimate military-led regime”, while the alumni of ASEAN youth programmes in Myanmar said the bloc should be talking to the international representatives of Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, not to the military government.

“ASEAN must understand that the coup or the re-election promised by the military junta is utterly unacceptable to the people of Myanmar,” it said it a letter to ASEAN.

Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said ASEAN member states were in a difficult position.

“For Myanmar’s neighbours, there will always be issues of regional security that require consultations with those in power in Naypyidaw,” he wrote in a blog post.

“It is in ASEAN’s interests to keep open lines of communication with the Tatmadaw (the army) so long as it holds power, if for no other reason than to use these channels to urge the army to return to its barracks post-haste – lest the current political instability lead to violence which sparks another humanitarian disaster, like that which saw 700,000 Rohingya flee Myanmar in 2017.

“In engaging the junta, however, ASEAN risks legitimising the very coup that gives rise to these risks.”

In Yangon, dozens of people returned to the streets on Tuesday as funerals continued for those killed in the violence. Protesters set up makeshift barricades and taped images of Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing to the ground.

Police moved quickly to disperse the crowds, firing live rounds, stun grenades and tear gas, sending protesters fleeing.

They regrouped later, however, and continued chanting slogans demanding an end to military rule.

There were no reports of injuries in Yangon but four people were wounded in the northwestern town of Kale, where police fired live ammunition to disperse a crowd after protesters threw things at advancing police, a witness told Reuters news agency.

Min Aung Hlaing, in remarks read on state television by a newscaster, warned again on Monday that protest leaders and “instigators” would be punished and also threatened action against civil servants who were refusing to work.

Journalists arrested

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says more than 1,200 people have been arrested since the coup and the Irrawaddy newspaper said that included at least 25 journalists, 10 of whom are still in detention.

The latest arrests include a journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma, who live-streamed security forces outside his apartment on Monday in the coastal town of Myeik, where he had been filming protests. DVB confirmed the arrest, saying it had no knowledge of where Kaung Myat Naing had been taken or which military authority took him.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said at least 59 elected representatives were also behind bars in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the military authorities filed additional criminal charges on Monday against Aung San Suu Kyi, who has not been seen in public since her detention on the day of the coup.

She appeared at a court hearing via videoconferencing on Monday and looked in good health, one of her lawyers said. Her legal team was not granted access to her ahead of the hearing.

People attend the funeral of a woman who was shot dead on February 28 while police were trying to disperse an anti-coup demonstration in Mandalay, Myanmar, March 1, 2021 [Stringer/ Reuters]
Tear gas and fire extinguisher gas float around protesters as they clash with riot police officers during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, March 1, 2021 [Stringer/ Reuters]

The United States warned Myanmar’s military rulers on Monday that it would take more action if security forces kill unarmed people and attack journalists and activists, actions that Department of State spokesman Ned Price called “abhorrent violence”.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration of President Joe Biden was preparing further costs on those responsible for the coup.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on Monday she hoped to use Washington’s presidency of the UN Security Council in March to push for more “intense discussions” on Myanmar.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies