BANGKOK – Myanmar’s junta chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has agreed to let an Asean delegation visit the country as well as provide humanitarian assistance, after meeting leaders of the bloc at a special summit in Jakarta.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking after the meeting to discuss Myanmar’s crisis on Saturday (April 24), said the military chief, who staged a coup on Feb 1, had told the regional leaders at the meeting “he was not opposed to Asean playing a constructive role or an Asean delegation visit or humanitarian assistance, and that they would move forward and engage with Asean in a constructive way”.
Mr Lee said he now expects Asean to put together a delegation as well as work out details of the humanitarian aid.
He added: “There is a long way forward, because it is one thing to say you will cease violence and release political prisoners, it is another thing to get it done.
“To have an inclusive discussion in order to reach a political resolution, it is even harder still, but at least there is some steps forward which we can take.”
The Jakarta meeting was the first in-person meeting of Asean leaders since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The involvement of Gen Min Aung Hlaing at the summit sparked strong condemnation from Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), which was formed by ousted lawmakers together with their allies on April 16 and stakes its claim as the legitimate representative of Myanmar.
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, who have been detained since the coup, retain their positions in the NUG.
Singapore’s call for the violence to cease and political prisoners to be released was echoed by several leaders at the summit, including Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesia President Joko Widodo.
As at Friday (April 23), 745 people have been killed by the junta and over 3,300 imprisoned, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Local reports say scores more have been abducted by security forces.
Myanmar, Asean’s poorest country, was already struggling to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic before the Feb 1 coup and the political crisis has only deepened the desperation. The United Nations World Food Programme warned on Thursday that up to 3.4 million more people – especially those in urban centres – will be hungry within the next six months.
Heightened conflict between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups that have pledged support for the anti-coup movement has also swelled the number of displaced villagers, raising the likelihood that Myanmar’s immediate neighbours could see a flood of refugees on their doorstep.
China, which borders Myanmar, had urged the Asean meeting to be “conducive to fending off external interference” – in apparent reference to countries, like the United States, which have imposed sanctions on the Myanmar military and its business entities, as well as calls by the Myanmar people for foreign military intervention.
PM Lee said: “The resolution has to be among the people of Myanmar and the government of Myanmar, the elected parties as well as the Tatmadaw (the armed forces).
“The armed forces are a key institution in Myanmar and you cannot just say we put them out of the picture and then we carry on without them. It is not possible. The society will split, and the remaining system cannot function. So that is for Myanmar to decide.”
Asean, which takes decisions by consensus and is constrained by a policy of non-interference, had previously not been able to muster a tangible response beyond calls to de-escalate the situation in Myanmar.
The crisis was seen as the biggest test of Asean’s relevance in recent years.
The heads of governments of Laos, Thailand and the Philippines skipped the summit.
The most conspicuous absence was that of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who Gen Min Aung Hlaing wrote to shortly after the coup to reportedly ask for help in supporting democracy. Mr Prayut, himself a former army chief who staged a coup in 2014, cited the need to handle Thailand’s Covid-19 outbreak as a reason for not attending the summit.
But the United Nations envoy on Myanmar, Ms Christine Schraner Burgener, who has been unable to enter Myanmar since the coup, was able to hold discussions with senior regional officials like Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on the sidelines of the summit.
Additional reporting by Arlina Arshad