The United States has accused Myanmar’s military generals of playing for time after coup leader Min Aung Hlaing extended the deadline for new elections, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) to step up efforts to resolve the political turmoil triggered by the power grab.
Blinken is participating virtually this week in talks with foreign ministers from ASEAN, whose 10 members include Myanmar.
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At a special summit in April, the group agreed to a five-point plan to address the deteriorating situation in Myanmar, including an end to violence and the appointment of a special envoy to lead diplomatic initiatives.
But the crackdown has continued and on Sunday, in a speech to mark six months since the coup, Min Aung Hlaing said a state of emergency imposed after the coup would remain in force until August 2023, with new elections to take place more than a year later than initially promised.
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 an unnamed 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.”
Although Min Aung Hlaing attended the April meeting, he later distanced himself from the statement and more than 900 people have been reported killed in the six-month crackdown on anti-coup protests.
Two ASEAN diplomats told the Associated Press news agency on Tuesday that the bloc wants to designate Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as special envoy to Myanmar, but are waiting on approval from the military.
Myanmar did not immediately react to the choice, preventing the ministers from issuing a post-conference joint communique that would have reflected the key development, the diplomats said.
One of the Southeast Asian diplomats said Myanmar preferred the special envoy be the candidate from Thailand, former Thai ambassador to Myanmar Virasakdi Futrakul.
Even if Myanmar were to get its preferred choice, it remains uncertain if and when the nation’s military leaders would allow access to civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained with other political leaders and put on trial for a slew of charges, said the diplomats.
The flurry of diplomatic activities come amid a backdrop of continuing political turmoil in Myanmar as well as a health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were reports of scattered anti-military government protests on Monday and Tuesday, according to social media posts.
In Win Chone village, in Pauk Township in Myanmar’s northwest, there were reports on Tuesday of at least 50 homes destroyed by security forces.
At least 330 deaths from COVID-19 were reported on Tuesday, pushing the total toll above 10,000, although the real number of fatalities is believed to be much higher. More than 300,000 have officially been reported to have contracted the disease.
Meanwhile, the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), composed mostly of deposed civilian leaders of parliament, are appealing for humanitarian help following flooding and landslides in Mon and Kayin states.
The NUG promised to continue “providing assistance to the disaster affected areas”.
Aside from Myanmar, Washington wants to reassure Southeast Asia of its commitment to the region and hopes Blinken’s participation in five consecutive days of regional meetings will show the administration of President Joe Biden is serious about engaging with its allies and partners in Southeast Asia.
The US official said Blinken would address Beijing’s “coercion” against ASEAN nations in the disputed South China Sea and highlight human rights concerns in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Southeast Asia last week, where he discussed the South China Sea, and reiterated that Beijing’s claims to almost the entire waterway had no basis in international law.
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 injustices.
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 one of the most pro-Beijing ASEAN nations.
Aside from 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.