ASEAN diplomacy in Myanmar intensifies as EU eyes more sanctions

Analyst says ASEAN diplomacy ‘dead on arrival’ while shadow opposition government seeks recognition of ethnic Rohingya as citizens.

Protesters make the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Thursday [Stringer/AFP]

Diplomats from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are set for talks with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, as Myanmar enters its fifth month of crippling unrest since the military seized power on February 1 amid the increasing prospect of new sanctions from the European Union.

Myanmar has been in chaos and its economy paralysed since the coup, with more than 800 people killed in a brutal crackdown on dissent, according to a local monitoring group.

Erywan Pehin Yusof, Brunei’s second minister for foreign affairs and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi arrived in the capital Naypyidaw late on Thursday, a senior Myanmar official, who did not want to be named, told the AFP news agency.

The envoys will meet Min Aung Hlaing on Friday morning, the official added and the military’s information team told journalists that they would shortly release more information on the meetings.

ASEAN, which has 10 members including Myanmar, has led diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis but the grouping operates on the basis of non-interference in each other’s affairs and acts on consensus. Observers have questioned how effective its initiatives will be.

It was not immediately clear whether the envoys would also meet members of the National Unity Government (NUG), who are mostly overthrown parliament members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

“ASEAN diplomacy is dead on arrival,” Myanmar analyst David Mathieson told AFP.

“The West will likely sound support for this visit, sending clear signals to Naypyidaw their coup is succeeding.”

The NUG on Thursday announced a sweeping amendment to the country’s citizenship laws that would pave the way for the recognition of the mostly Muslim Rohingya as citizens, saying it would work “to build a prosperous and federal democratic union where all ethnic groups belonging to the Union can live together peacefully”.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled the country in 2017 after a brutal military crackdown that is now under investigation as a possible genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi and her elected government had previously defended the actions, even travelling to the Hague to give evidence.

On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s President Peter Maurer became the most senior representative of an international organisation to travel to Naypyidaw when he met Min Aung Hlaing.

“People in Myanmar are in need of urgent assistance and protection,” Maurer said, according to an ICRC statement.

He discussed “the use of force during security operations” and made the case for better humanitarian access to conflict areas and for the resumption of Red Cross prison visits, the statement said.

Min Aung Hlaing, however, was “noncommittal” but did not refuse Maurer’s request, the Nikkei news service said, citing people familiar with the meeting.

EU sanctions

Meanwhile, the European Union is planning a new round of sanctions on the ruling generals and their economic interests in the coming days.

“There is a third row of sanctions in preparation that will be approved (in) the coming days,” European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told the Reuters news agency on Thursday during a visit to Jakarta.

Borrell also told journalists that efforts “to find a political solution for the Myanmar situation belongs to ASEAN.”

The international community have all backed ASEAN’s mediating role but some Western powers have also imposed increasing sanctions to punish the military leadership and their economic interests.

Neither sanctions nor diplomacy, however, have had an obvious effect on the military, which argues that the coup which ended 10 years of tentative democratic reforms will bring a “disciplined democracy”.

Killings have also continued and instead of talking to the NUG, the military has branded it a ‘”terrorist”‘ group.

The army took power after the former electoral commission rejected its accusations of fraud in a November election that was won by the NLD in a landslide. The generals arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and senior members of the civilian administration hours before they announced they had seized power.

Recognition of the Rohingya

The NUG has countered the military’s efforts by calling for more unity with the country’s ethnic minorities and urging the Rohingya to help it overthrow the coup leaders, while promising them citizenship and repatriation in a future, democratic Myanmar.

“We invite Rohingyas to join hands with us and with others to participate in this Spring Revolution against the military dictatorship,” the group said in a statement.

The new policy proposal is a complete turnaround for Aung San Suu Kyi’s allies given that her NLD government had previously avoided even using the term “Rohingya”, referring instead to the minority as “Muslims living in Rakhine”.

The NUG also promised to end a 1982 citizenship law which discriminates against the Rohingya, promising all those born in Myanmar or to a Myanmar citizen would be granted citizenship.

The group also said it was committed to repatriating the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya languishing in camps in Bangladesh “as soon as repatriation can be accomplished voluntarily, safely and with dignity.”

More than 740,000 Rohingya fled over the border into Bangladesh after a bloody military campaign in 2017 that the UN condemned as ethnic cleansing.

The military claimed its operations were justified to root out Rohingya fighters following a series of deadly attacks on police posts and has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

More than 600,000 Rohingya remain mostly in western Rakhine state without citizenship, restricted to either camps or their villages and many are unable to access medical care.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies