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Divided ASEAN struggles to reach united Myanmar stance

By AFP - Jul 13,2023 - Last updated at Jul 13,2023

JAKARTA — ASEAN foreign ministers were still working for a united position on the Myanmar crisis on Thursday, a day after the bloc's ministerial meeting ended.

Myanmar has been ravaged by deadly violence since a military coup ousted Aung San Suu Kyi's government in February 2021, unleashing a bloody crackdown on dissent.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations chair Indonesia had on Wednesday urged a political solution to the crisis at two-day foreign minister talks.

More than two years after the coup, the divided 10-member bloc's peace efforts remain fruitless, as the junta ignores international criticism and refuses to engage with its opponents.

By Thursday, ministers had still not agreed on a communique.

A southeast Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a joint text was still being worked out.

A second diplomat attending the meetings told AFP on condition of anonymity the delay was because "they are working on the language on Myanmar" and a joint communique could arrive as late as Friday.

An early draft seen by AFP on Tuesday had left a section on Myanmar blank, as the group wrangled over its content and language.

The second diplomat said some countries want outright re-engagement with the junta, while others are pushing for a five-point plan agreed two years ago with Myanmar's rulers to remain the basis for re-engagement.

This confirmed the “deep divisions within ASEAN on the Myanmar issue”, the diplomat added.


Thai dialogue track 


Thailand has launched a separate track to the ASEAN efforts, speaking directly with the Myanmar junta and other actors in the conflict.

Last month, Bangkok hosted the junta’s foreign minister for controversial “informal talks” that further split the bloc.

Then on Wednesday, on the second day of ASEAN talks, Thailand’s top diplomat announced that he met last week with Suu Kyi — who has been detained since the coup, and jailed by a junta court for a total of 33 years.

Don Pramudwinai said he met the Nobel laureate on Sunday in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw and said she was in “good health” and “encouraged dialogue”.

Don “freely discussed what he wanted” with Suu Kyi, junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said in an audio statement posted by the military’s information team Thursday, adding that her health was “good”.

On Thursday, Don told reporters: “It has been two years now, [and] not much improvement. So there must be reengagement with Myanmar.”

‘Safe, stable, prosperous’ 


Indonesia has said any other efforts must support ASEAN’s existing five-point peace plan to end the violence and renew talks.

The southeast Asian diplomat who spoke to AFP said ASEAN members would support Thailand’s initiative, “provided it served the purpose of complementing the chair’s role”.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir told reporters that all members were working towards the “same issue”, which was ensuring that Southeast Asia was “a region that is safe, stable and prosperous”.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Jakarta had engaged in “quiet diplomacy” with all sides of the conflict, and in its seven months as chair had held more than 110 engagements concerning Myanmar.

But analysts said Thailand was taking the lead on the crisis, undercutting ASEAN efforts and shifting the centre of negotiation to Bangkok.

A Thai foreign ministry official declined to comment on Indonesia’s work as ASEAN chair.

Southeast Asian ministers were on Thursday meeting with their South Korean, Japanese and Chinese counterparts for ASEAN-plus-three talks.

Economic cooperation, the disputed South China Sea and Myanmar were expected to be high on the agenda, analysts said.

“Japan and South Korea have an interest to prevent Myanmar from joining China’s orbit,” said Teuku Rezasyah, an international relations expert at Padjadjaran University.

China was represented at the talks by top diplomat Wang Yi instead of Foreign Minister Qin Gang after Qin pulled out for “health reasons”, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

After that meeting, Wang was to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for their second round of talks in as many months, seeking to manage tensions.

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