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UN Envoy to Meet With ASEAN Leaders on Sidelines of Myanmar Summit

The U.N. Special Envoy on Myanmar will be in Jakarta this weekend to talk to Southeast Asian leaders on the sidelines of a special summit on the turmoil in Myanmar, the world body said Wednesday.

But the meeting scheduled for Saturday has been dealt a blow, analysts say, because of Thai PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s decision not to attend.

“The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Christine Schraner Burgener, remains in the region and will be in Jakarta to engage ASEAN leaders on the sidelines of Saturday’s meeting, focusing on a political solution,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for U.N. chief António Guterres.

The secretary-general “urges ASEAN leaders to help prevent an escalation of the crisis and possible grave humanitarian implications beyond Myanmar’s borders,” Dujarric told a daily press briefing at the United Nations in New York, according to a transcript.

Schraner Burgener arrived in the region earlier this month for talks on Myanmar, but the Burmese military was not ready to receive her, she said on Twitter on April 9.

So far, leaders of six of the regional bloc’s 10 nations, including the head of Myanmar’s military regime, have committed to attending the in-person meeting.

But the absence of Prayuth, a former junta chief, has undermined the summit’s ability to pressure the Burmese junta to stop killing civilians and to restore democracy, analysts said.

“I think the meeting should be accorded the importance of having the attendance of the member countries’ highest leaders to show a full force and full concern of ASEAN,” said Azmi Hassan, a Malaysian political analyst.

“If instead only second-echelon or third-echelon leaders attend the meeting, it would signal to the junta that ASEAN is not speaking as one voice. It is very critical for ASEAN to show that they speak as one voice regarding any decision taken on Myanmar,” Azmi told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

More than 700 people – mostly anti-coup protesters – have been killed by Burmese security forces since the Feb. 1 coup, according to the latest statistics from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Myanmar human rights group based in Thailand.

Who’s going

By Wednesday, the leaders of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam had officially confirmed they would attend the meeting at the ASEAN secretariat in the Indonesian capital.

Vietnam Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh will also go, the Vietnamese Embassy to the United States told BenarNews on Wednesday.

Thailand is sending Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. The Philippine foreign ministry said it would issue a statement on Thursday on whether President Rodrigo Duterte is attending. Duterte’s office has been fending off speculation about his health.

There has been no official comment from Laos and Singapore about who will represent their governments at the special meeting.

But it is Prayuth’s non-attendance that is going to hurt the ASEAN meeting the most, said Syed Hamid Albar, a former Malaysian foreign minister.

Prayuth stated no reason for his decision to skip the meeting when he told reporters on Tuesday that his deputy was going to Jakarta in his place.

Prayuth’s absence is a drawback as Thailand is very close to the Tatmadaw, Hamid told the state-run Malaysian news service Bernama, referring to the Myanmar’s armed forces by their Burmese name.

In 2018, Thailand awarded Min Aung Hlaing the “King Grand Cross of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant,” a royal decoration. At the time, the Myanmar army chief told the media that he was bestowed the honor because “the relationship between the two armed forces is quite good,” the Bangkok Post reported.

At the time Prayuth was in his fourth year as leader of the country, after he engineered a coup in 2014 as the army chief.

Burmese and Thai military leaders have a “personal chemistry,” that has “pushed their relations to a new plateau,” said a December 2015 article in Global Asia, a quarterly publication of the East Asia Foundation.

“[Then] General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the Thai prime minister, chose Myanmar as the first foreign country to visit following his seizure of power in a coup in May 2014,” the article said.

Prayuth’s absence from the upcoming ASEAN meeting does not bode well for the group’s leaders who want to send a strong message to the Myanmar junta, said Hunter Marston, a non-resident fellow at the Pacific Forum, a foreign policy research institute.

It is “a big blow to any hope of ASEAN unity, which was already pretty thin,” Marston said via Twitter.

In March, ASEAN foreign ministers couldn’t reach a consensus about calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected Myanmar leaders detained by the military since the coup.

“Skipping the summit is a clear message to Min Aung Hlaing that he stands with him. … [It is a] signal he [Prayuth] does not want to be involved in any strong message to Myanmar that ASEAN is against the coup,” Marston said.

‘Appeasement’

As it is, ASEAN is facing criticism for having invited Min Aung Hlaing to the summit. The regional grouping has been tightlipped about who it has invited and who has accepted.

ASEAN chair Brunei has not said whether it has invited representatives of the National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel government launched Friday and that comprises lawmakers who won seats in the November 2020 election, which the Myanmar military overturned by force.

Romeo Abad Arca, an assistant director of public relations at the ASEAN Secretariat, told BenarNews on Wednesday that he had no information about who would attend the summit.

Brunei and Indonesian officials did not immediately respond to emails from BenarNews.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Min Aung Hlaing would probably not attend if NUG representatives were present.

“NUG not being invited is perhaps so as not to upset the junta leader, as he would probably decline to attend if the NUG will be there as well,” Oh told BenarNews.

“So, ASEAN appears to be bending backward to accommodate the whims and wishes of the general and by extension, the junta. I think the traditional term for this is called appeasement.”

Meanwhile, the decision of the Myanmar junta chief to attend shows “he’s confident enough of regime stability to leave [the] country and not fear a usurper,” said Marston.

“He wants legitimacy that [the] summit will give badly enough to take that risk,” Marston said.

None of this comes as a surprise to Bridget Welsh, a political scientist with Nottingham University in Malaysia.

“I don’t expect much from the meeting as ASEAN is divided. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand are pro junta while Singapore is ambivalent as it enables the junta. This leaves a small group who are against,” Welsh told BenarNews.

International rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, urged ASEAN to cancel the invitation to Myanmar’s junta chief “for his role in military atrocities and the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.”

 

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