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Myanmar military urged not to ‘invite’ foreign intervention, as Asean foreign ministers meet

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Protesters flash three-finger salutes during an anti-coup demonstration on a blocked road in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: AP

Asean foreign ministers held an emergency meeting on Tuesday afternoon during which the bloc called on Myanmar’s military rulers to stop violence against demonstrators and immediately release civilian leaders as a first step towards quelling the unrest that has followed last month’s coup.

Ahead of the talks, police in Myanmar continued to use violence – including the firing of live bullets – to disperse crowds as protests continued in Yangon and across the country, Reuters reported, citing activists and eye witnesses.

The virtual Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meeting began at 4pm Hong Kong time and lasted about two hours.

Myanmar was represented by Wunna Maung Lwin, who was appointed foreign minister after the February 1 coup against the civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy (NLD).

The 10-nation Asean bloc did not release a statement after the meeting, though there were responses from individual member states. Malaysia, for instance, made public Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein’s prepared remarks.

Hishammuddin echoed public remarks made before the meeting by Singaporeans officials that talks between the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, and Suu Kyi’s camp were the best chance of resolving the crisis.

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Protesters hold posters with the image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration against the military coup in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. Photo: AFP

“We urge Myanmar to consider returning to the negotiating table to remedy the political crisis and avoid further escalation of tensions, which may invite intrusive foreign interventions in the Asean region,” Hishammuddin said.

He offered three proposals for Asean and Myanmar to consider: the setting up of a group of “eminent persons” to oversee electoral matters that are at the centre of the military’s dispute with Suu Kyi; a visit to Myanmar by Asean secretary general Lim Jock Hoi and Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (the current Asean chair) and the establishment of an “Asean Troika” for engagement between Asean, Myanmar and outside powers.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, speaking after the meeting, also mentioned the need for dialogue and for the immediate release of Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders. She added that the regional grouping’s “good intentions and readiness will be meaningless if Myanmar does not open its door for Asean”.

Earlier, the Philippine Foreign Minister Teddy Boy Locsin Jnr, responding to a question on Twitter from the South China Morning Post, declined to comment on what went on during the talks but described the event as “outstanding”.

Before Tuesday’s talks, comments from Singapore officials had offered the strongest hints of what was likely to happen during the meeting. In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed that talks between the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, and Suu Kyi’s camp were the best chance of resolving the crisis.

He resisted suggestions that foreign nations may need to directly intervene.

“We have to express disapproval for what is done, which is against the values of many other countries, and in fact a large part of humanity,” Lee said, according to a transcript of the interview released by his government.

“But to say that I will take action against them, where does this lead? Now, the demonstrators are saying military intervention in Myanmar? Is the 82nd Airborne going to arrive?,” he asked, referring to the US infantry unit deployed in various foreign crises including in Kosovo and Bosnia in the 1990s and most recently in Syria.

Marsudi said the principle of non-interference was a “must” and that “no single Asean country has intentions to violate this principle”. But at the same time, “upholding and implementing values of democracy, respect of human rights, good governance, rule of law and constitutional government are equally important,” she said.

Some commentators – including demonstrators who have taken to social media in search of international support – have said Asean should consider punitive measures against Myanmar to pressure the military into restoring democratic rule. But the bloc is governed by central principles of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs and acting through consensus rather than by the view of the majority in the grouping.

Observers have said another major reason Asean might be reluctant to interfere is that several of its member states are themselves run in autocratic fashion. Brunei, the current chair of the bloc, is an absolute monarchy, Vietnam and Laos are ruled by one-party communist states, Cambodia is governed by strongman Hun Sen and Thailand is currently governed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military-backed regime.

Deepak Nair, an assistant professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said Asean had throughout its history and by diplomatic design tended to choose “order over justice”.

While several member states have sharpened their condemnation of the Tatmadaw’s violence in recent days, the researcher pointed out that the countries also emphasised in their statements that their core goal was to work towards the return of political stability and reconciliation among stakeholders, including the military.

“I wouldn’t read too much into these statements as heralding something new for Asean diplomacy,” said Nair, a scholar of geopolitics in Southeast Asia. “In fact, it seems like a return to the pre-2010 era where Asean’s diplomacy over the Myanmar problem revolved around the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the call for political dialogue and reconciliation, and occasional sharp rebukes.”

Lee, asked by the BBC what he thought the “end game” for the Tatmadaw would be, said he hoped good sense would prevail.

He pointed out that Myanmar had experienced riots that killed thousands in 1988, with further violent demonstrations in 2007, three years before the-then ruling junta shocked the world by setting the stage for democratic reforms.

The NLD and Suu Kyi subsequently won 2015’s election by a landslide and scored another decisive victory last November. The Tatmadaw seized power and declared a year-long emergency citing irregularities in last year’s polls.

Said Lee: “I hope that wisdom will prevail, as it did the last time, and the Tatmadaw will conclude that to go the military route does not lead anywhere, and that they have to work out an arrangement with the civilian government, which has been democratically elected.”

Meanwhile, the new US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on Monday that Washington would use its month-long occupancy of the Security Council’s rotating presidency to pursue “intensive discussions” on Myanmar’s crisis.

The 15-member Security Council had voiced concerns soon after Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup but stopped short of outrightly condemning it due to opposition from veto-wielding Russia and China.

The diplomatic activity surrounding Myanmar has also given rise to questions over the recognition of the Tatmadaw as the Southeast Asian country’s official government.

Myanmar’s NLD-appointed ambassador to the United Nations Kyaw Moe Tun holds up three fingers as a symbol of protest at the end of his speech to the General Assembly, in which he pleaded for international action to overturn the military coup. Photo: Reuters

The UN said on Monday it had not received any communication regarding the change of government and that it continued to recognise the NLD-appointed ambassador to the world body, Kyaw Moe Tun. Military-controlled state television had announced he was fired after making an emotional plea on Friday for the international community to take the “strongest possible action” to end the junta’s rule.

Thomas-Greenfield echoed this position.

“We have not seen any official evidence or request that he be removed, and for the time being he is the representative of the Myanmar government,” she said.

A group representing elected lawmakers ousted by the coup, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, said before the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting it considered the state administration council formed following the coup to be a “terrorist group” on account of the “atrocities and acts of terrorism” that had taken place in recent weeks. The group also said it had appointed four representatives to serve as “acting union ministers”.

Eighteen people were killed and 30 wounded in clashes with security forces on Sunday, bringing the total number of deaths to 21, according to Reuters.