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Southeast Asian nations urge halt to violence in Myanmar

NINIEK KARMINI
·3-min read
Anti-coup protesters display pictures of deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Police in Myanmar repeatedly used tear gas and rubber bullets Tuesday against crowds protesting last month's coup, but the demonstrators regrouped after each volley and tried to defend themselves with barricades as standoffs between protesters and security forces intensified. (AP Photo)

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Southeast Asian foreign ministers urged a halt to violence and the start of talks on a peaceful solution in Myanmar, where the military seized power from an elected government and is escalating its use of mass arrests and deadly force against peaceful protesters.

Myanmar's top diplomat briefed other foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations during a video conference Tuesday, according to the meeting's agenda.

It was the first meeting of foreign ministers of the 10-member ASEAN since the Feb. 1 coup, when Myanmar's military detained Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders.

Brunei, which heads ASEAN this year, had proposed that a joint statement be issued after the meeting. But the ministers apparently failed to agree on a declaration, and Brunei issued its own chairman's statement.

“We expressed our concern on the situation in Myanmar and called on all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility. We also called on all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution, through constructive dialogue," the statement said.

It also said the ministers “heard calls” for the release of political prisoners and for the U.N. special envoy on Myanmar to play a mediating role, without identifying who made those proposals.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi led efforts to lobby for the ASEAN meeting. She has visited other member countries in recent weeks, including Thailand, where she held three-way talks with Thai counterpart Don Pramudwinai and Myanmar’s new foreign minister, retired army colonel Wunna Maung Lwin, who also traveled to Thailand.

“This situation is worrisome,” Marsudi said after Tuesday's meeting, “It is worrisome because an increasing number of civilians have lost their lives and are injured, it’s worrisome because there are still arrests of civilians, it’s worrisome because this situation could threaten the transition of the democratic process.”

She called for a restoration of democracy and a return to normalcy. “This ASEAN meeting was to discuss and find a solution. However, it takes two to tango. The will and goodwill of ASEAN to help will not be implemented if Myanmar does not open its doors to ASEAN,” she said.

Singapore and Malaysia have also urged Myanmar’s military junta to halt the use of violence.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament on Monday that his country was “appalled” by Myanmar’s use of lethal force against unarmed civilians, calling it “inexcusable.”

He said prolonged instability in Myanmar would lead to serious consequences for it and the region. He urged the release of Suu Kyi and other political detainees, saying it was the only way to jumpstart negotiations and return to the path of democratic transition.

Although ASEAN has long operated on a principle of non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs and its decisions are made by consensus, Balakrishnan said the group can play a key role in facilitating Myanmar’s return to normalcy.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein also urged ASEAN to play a more proactive role and said Malaysia viewed the military takeover as a setback to Myanmar’s democratic transition in the past decade. He urged the military to uphold the rule of law and respect the people’s right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

“It is crucial that ASEAN leads a sincere discussion and constructively engage with Myanmar and all stakeholders to show that ASEAN is effective as a cohesive regional grouping,” he said ahead of Tuesday's meeting.

The Philippine delegation said, "Our call is for the complete return to the previously existing state of affairs,” adding that the first step should be the immediate release of Suu Kyi, followed by a dialogue.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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Associated Press journalists Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.