US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed “deep concerns” about the military coup in Myanmar and called on Southeast Asian nations to take action to end violence and restore democracy in the country.
Blinken made the appeal during a meeting with foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Wednesday.
ASEAN has been leading the main diplomatic effort on Myanmar since the country’s military seized power in a coup on February 1.
At least 902 people have been killed in the ensuing crackdown, according to a monitoring group, while tens of thousands of people have been displaced amid fighting between the security forces and newly formed armed groups across Myanmar.
During Wednesday’s video conference with ASEAN diplomats, Blinken urged the 10-country bloc, of which Myanmar is a member, to take “immediate action” on a five-point consensus that was agreed in April, according to a statement by the US Department of State.
The ASEAN plan calls for an end to the violence in Myanmar, the start of a dialogue between all parties, greater humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas as well as the appointment of a special envoy.
The plan – which coup leader Ming Aung Hlaing agreed to – has also received the backing of Russia, a key supplier of arms and training to Myanmar’s military.
The military, however, have since shown no intention of following through on the plan and have instead reiterated its own, entirely different plan to restore order and democracy in Myanmar. The lack of action has frustrated ASEAN’s most outspoken members such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, which are also additionally demanding the release of detained civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
Blinken backed that demand on Wednesday, urging ASEAN to take joint action to release all those “unjustly detained” in Myanmar and to appoint an envoy to begin the dialogue process between the country’s opposing sides.
It was not immediately clear if Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister responded to Blinken’s concerns.
A Southeast Asian diplomat told the Associated Press news agency that the two-hour meeting was “very civil” despite the discussions on highly contentious issues.
The diplomat, who was involved in the meeting, said ASEAN member states have given Myanmar officials the names of its possible envoys from Thailand and Indonesia but there has been no response. Two ASEAN representatives who traveled to Myanmar last month asked to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and other detainees but were rebuffed, the diplomat added.
Blinken’s meeting with ASEAN was his first since US President Joe Biden took office in January and came amid concerns among diplomats and others that Washington has not been paying sufficient attention to a region that is crucial to its regional strategy to counter an increasingly powerful China.
The State Department said Blinken reaffirmed the US’s commitment to ASEAN centrality on Wednesday and underscored ASEAN’s essential role in the Indo-Pacific regional architecture.
He also went on to emphasise Washington’s rejection of China’s “unlawful maritime claims” in the South China Sea and said Washington “stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of (Chinese) coercion”, the statement said.
China claims vast swathes of the disputed South China Sea via its unilaterally declared, U-shaped, “nine-dash line” which intersects with the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines, all ASEAN members.
Trillions of dollars in annual trade flows through the disputed waterway.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he hoped Wednesday’s meeting signalled a “refreshed commitment” to US multilateral cooperation in the region.
“We understand that multilateralism was not a key focus for the previous administration, but the Biden administration’s embrace of multilateral cooperation is a welcome development,” Hishammuddin said, according to a copy of his delivered remarks.
“This path is the only way forward to ensure stability, peace, prosperity and security for our region.”