ASEAN foreign ministers on March 2 urged the Myanmar military to desist from violence and respect the will of the Myanmar people, as the regime continued cracking down on protests against the February 1 coup.
The messages were conveyed during the informal ASEAN foreign ministers meeting March 2, which was attended by Wunna Maung Lwin, the top envoy appointed by Myanmar’s military regime after the coup. The online meeting came two days after security forces killed at least 18 people in the bloodiest crackdown yet on swelling protests nationwide.
Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan told the media after the meeting: “ASEAN wants to continue to engage, and to be helpful and to be constructive wherever possible. But ultimately, the solution lies within Myanmar itself.
“The only way you’re going to get a long-term sustainable viable solution is for national reconciliation to occur, and, in particular, we call for the release of President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the other political detainees.”
Both are currently detained incommunicado pending court trials.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called the crisis in Myanmar “tragic” but remained hopeful that wisdom would prevail.
He told the BBC in an interview: “I think sense can still eventually prevail. It may take quite a long time, but it can happen.”
He added that using lethal force against unarmed demonstrators was not acceptable. “If [the Myanmar population] decide that the government is not on their side, I think the government has a very big problem,” Lee said.
Dr Balakrishnan stressed that Singapore has not recognised the regime as Myanmar’s government, but recognises that the country’s Constitution provides for a special role for the military. This includes reserving a quarter of all seats in Parliament and control of key ministries.
ASEAN, which operates by consensus, has shied away from condemning the coup in its member state Myanmar, unlike the US and other Western countries.
This, and the recent shuttle diplomacy of Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi, has kept the door open to talks with the junta.
Analysts point out that the 10-nation bloc cannot afford to sit back because Myanmar’s political crisis threatens the bloc’s partnerships with larger powers that have taken strong positions against the coup.
Reflecting this nuanced position, Dr Balakrishnan called the meeting “an opportunity for nine of us to listen to the representative of the military authorities from Myanmar”, instead of a meeting between 10 foreign ministers.
Retno said ASEAN is ready to facilitate dialogue when required. But “ASEAN’s hopes and well-meaning intentions to help will not materialise if Myanmar does not open its doors to ASEAN”, she said.
The Tatmadaw (as the military is called) – which ruled the country for some five decades before 2011 – alleges that the November 8 election that gave Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party its second sweeping victory is fraudulent. It promises to hold another poll after the one-year state of emergency.
Since seizing power on February 1, commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has tried to stamp the junta’s authority, only to meet with fierce protests that the authorities have cracked down on.
Dr Balakrishan said: “It is not yet too late. They are at the abyss of violence, which will be of terrible consequences for Myanmar and indeed for our region.
“It is not yet too late, and hence the plea for them to desist from this violent repression of the popular unrest that has resulted from the coup.”
THE STRAITS TIMES (SINGAPORE)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK