ASEAN leader: No progress in ending Myanmar’s deadly civil strife

LABUAN BAJO, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesian President Joko Widodo somberly acknowledged to fellow Southeast Asian leaders Thursday that no progress has been made to end the civil strife gripping Myanmar and renewed a call for an end to the violence, including a recent airstrike a rights group called an “apparent war crime.”

“I have to be honest,” Widodo told fellow leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the final day of their two-day summit in the Indonesian harbor town of Labuan Bajo. “There has been no significant progress in the implementation of the five-point consensus.”

ASEAN’s chairperson this year, Widodo was referring to a peace plan forged by the 10-nation bloc with Myanmar’s top general in 2021 that called for an immediate end to the violence and dialogue among contending parties to be brokered through an ASEAN special envoy.

Myanmar’s military-led government refused to take steps to enforce the plan, prompting ASEAN leaders to exclude the country’s ruling generals and their appointees from the bloc’s summit meetings. The generals have protested ASEAN’s move, which they said strayed from the group’s bedrock policy of non-intervention in each other’s domestic affairs and deciding by consensus.

Widodo called for unity — a seemingly futile call as he spoke with fellow heads of state in a bayside hotel conference room with the chair reserved for Myanmar’s leader empty.

After the leaders concluded their summit, Widodo and his foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, told a news conference that the bloc would continue to push for the peace plan’s enforcement and expand ASEAN’s engagement not just with military leaders but with various groups in Myanmar, hoping the military-led government would do the same.

“We will try again and again,” Marsudi told reporters. “We are still united and strong in seeing the urgency of the five-point consensus.”

“Engagement doesn’t mean recognition,” Widodo said.

Founded in 1967 as a diverse club of authoritarian regimes, monarchs and nascent democracies, ASEAN has come under international pressure to take tougher steps to address the crisis in Myanmar. But ASEAN members appeared to be divided, with some recommending an easing of punitive actions aimed at isolating Myanmar’s generals and allowing its top diplomat and officials back to attend the summit meetings.

“The time for isolation has served its purpose,” an internal ASEAN report obtained by The Associated Press cited “some member states” as saying in a meeting of the bloc’s top diplomats ahead of the leaders’ summit.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim publicly expressed his frustrations. He has said that about 200,000 people have fled to Malaysia to escape the tumult in Myanmar.

“ASEAN has not been able to resolve most problems, contentious ones,” Anwar told fellow leaders Wednesday in videotaped remarks he posted on his Twitter account. “We are stuck with the principle of non-intervention.”

“Yes, there is non-interference, but we will have to then have a new vision that could give us some flexibility in order to navigate and maneuver the way forward,” he said.

ASEAN leaders on Wednesday condemned an attack on an aid convoy that their group had arranged for displaced people in Myanmar, calling for an immediate stop to violence and for the military government to comply with a peace plan.

Gunmen opened fire on a convoy delivering aid to displaced villagers and carrying Indonesian and Singaporean diplomats over the weekend in Myanmar’s eastern Shan state. A security team with the convoy returned fire and a vehicle was damaged, but there were no injuries, state-run television MRTV reported.

For the second year, Myanmar’s top general was not invited to the summit. Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing led the army in seizing power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021, plunging the country into a civil strife and becoming ASEAN’s gravest crisis since its establishment.

During foreign ministers’ talks ahead of the summit, some suggested that the group reengage Myanmar’s military-led State Administration Council and “bring Myanmar back to ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting and summits, noting that the time for isolation has served its purpose,” according to the ASEAN report. It did not identify the countries pushing for more leniency toward Myanmar despite international outrage against continuing military attacks in the country.

The suggestion for ASEAN to bring Myanmar back into its fold was “noted,” the report said, hinting it did not receive full approval from all the ministers.

The ministerial talks stressed the Myanmar crisis should not affect ASEAN’s progress in building a regional community, said the report, which cited one observation that there would be no near-term solution to the Myanmar crisis.

“There was also an observation that ASEAN might be experiencing a ‘Myanmar fatigue,’ which might distract ASEAN from larger goals of ASEAN community-building,” the report said. “Patience, flexibility and creativity are therefore required since there will be no quick fix to the crisis.”

The report cited, without elaborating, concerns on rising transnational crimes, including human trafficking and illegal drug production originating from Myanmar. More alarmingly, it said, there was “a call to all parties to stop the influx of arms and financial funding into Myanmar, which leads to an escalation of the conflict.”

More than 3,450 civilians have been killed by security forces since Myanmar’s military took power, and thousands more remain imprisoned, said the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which keeps tallies of casualties and arrests linked to repression by the military government.

In April, a military airstrike killed more than 160 people, including many children, who were attending a ceremony by opponents of army rule, according to witnesses cited by Human Rights Watch. The group on Tuesday described the attack as an “apparent war crime.”

Aside from Myanmar, the long-seething territorial disputes in the South China Sea which involve China, ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, along with Taiwan, were high in the summit agenda.

In a post-summit communique issued by Widodo on behalf of the ASEAN leaders, they renewed a call for self-restraint in the disputed South China Sea to prevent miscalculations and confrontations, repeating language used in previous ASEAN statements, which criticized China’s aggressive actions without naming it in an indication of Beijing’s influence.

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Associated Press journalists Andi Jatmiko and Achmad Ibrahim contributed to this report.

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